Big cities were less deadly places to live in 2004 as murder rates declined in several urban areas, including New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C., according to a survey by The Associated Press.
Officials in New York and Chicago credit the drop to crime-fighting strategies that included putting more officers on the street and beefing up patrols dangerous neighborhoods.
“We really targeted gangs, drugs and guns,” Chicago police spokesman Pat Camden said. “Technology enabled us to take our gang tactical units and put them in places where we anticipated violence, areas where narcotics trafficking was bold and blatant.”
There were 445 homicides in Chicago as of Thursday, compared to 600 in all of 2003, police said. That is a decrease of about 25 percent, and would mark the first year since 1965 the city finished with fewer than 500 murders. The high mark was in 1992, when there were 940.
Exceptions to the trend were St. Louis, Detroit and Baltimore, where killings were up following steady declines.
The overall results were consistent with official FBI statistics for the first six months of 2004, which showed a nearly 6 percent fall in murders for the nation.
In New York, the murder total was 565 as of Thursday, from 596 in 2003. The total appeared certain to remain below 600 for the third year in a row — levels comparable to the early 1960s. New York saw a slight increase in murders in 2003.
Experts agree that police deserve credit for driving down murders. But they add that other factors — including a growing adult population less prone to violence — are in play.
“They’re doing their part to bring down the murder rate if only by getting older,” said James Alan Fox, a criminal justice professor at Northeastern University.
Elsewhere, Washington was on track to see one of its lowest murder rates in recent years. Through Monday, homicides totaled 193, compared to 240 at the same point in 2003.
Other cities reporting decreases in homicides were Las Vegas, Miami, Phoenix and Philadelphia, while numbers in Los Angeles and San Diego were about even with last year.
The steepest increase was in St. Louis, where through Thursday murders were up 56 percent — to 114 from 73. But police say the total still is the third lowest in nearly 40 years, and argue that a campaign to tame a dangerous drug trade is working.
“It’s still a pretty good number historically for this city, but I think we can do better,” Police Chief Joe Mokwa said of this year’s results.
Killings also were up slightly in Detroit as of Dec. 20, to 370 from a total of 366 in 2003. But police view the total favorably considering the year started with a rash of killings that drove the murder rate up 50 percent through April.
Police spokesman James Tate said the department reversed the trend in part by “putting the crunch on illegal narcotics,” an effort that resulted in the confiscation of $74 million in drugs.
A violent drug trade also has fueled an increase in slayings in Baltimore amid continuing turmoil in police leadership, officials said. The city had logged 278 murders through Thursday, compared to 271 at the same time last year.
Acting Police Commissioner Leonard Hamm said the department has emphasized cracking down on gun offenders.
“I think maybe we had lost focus on what the strategy should be,” Hamm said. “My opinion is the strategy of dealing with homicides effectively has to do with targeting violent individuals who use guns to ply their trade.”
Since 2002, Baltimore has seen one police commissioner leave under a cloud of suspicion that led to his guilty pleas on federal corruption charges. His successor was fired last month over allegations of domestic violence before Hamm took over.
Fox, the criminal justice professor, warned that fixating on overall homicide rates can conceal troubling trends, like increases in youth killings.
“There’s a tendency with rosy statistics in recent years to think this problem has been solved,” he said. “Crime can’t be solved; it can only be controlled.”