WASHINGTON (AP) - The nation's capital, ravaged more than two decades ago by a violent crack epidemic that drove up murder rates, is on pace to record the fewest number of homicides in nearly a half century, officials said Thursday.
The District of Columbia's decline mirrors a nationwide trend of falling rates in major American cities, but it's nonetheless a stark drop for a city that had 479 homicides 20 years ago.
There were 108 homicides in 2011 as of Thursday, down from 132 at the same time last year, according to D.C. police department figures. The homicide rate hasn't been this low since 1963, officials said, though the numbers have been steadily dropping over the past two decades.
D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier credited the decline to the quick turnaround time in closing cases, which removes the killer from the street before he can kill again or himself be killed in retribution - a common problem in gang violence. She also touted the department's work in targeting violent gang members and improved technology and use of social media that helps detectives analyze data and solve crimes.
Lanier said she was optimistic that the department can build on the success, saying she had hoped for fewer than 100 homicides this year and still considers that a reachable target.
"We've kind of mastered what our biggest drivers of homicides are," Lanier told The Associated Press.
In a separate interview, Mayor Vincent Gray attributed the drop in part to smarter community policing and to stronger leadership in the police districts that patrol the poorer, historically more violent neighborhoods of southeast Washington. He also said he was encouraged that the D.C. police department, which has been struggling with severe attrition, will again be adding to the force through recruitment.
"A lot of us say, 'If people don't feel safe, then they're not really safe,'" Gray said Thursday. "I think people are feeling a lot safer."
Still, the success in bringing down the murder rate is hardly unique to the nation's capital.
New York City, for instance, has had a two-decade decline in crime, and officials there predict a murder rate drop of at least 4 percent in 2011. There were 499 murders reported through Dec. 25, compared to 523 in the same span in 2010. And Baltimore officials said last week they were on pace to record fewer than 200 homicides for the year, the lowest rate in more than 20 years.
Gray and Lanier plan to announce the progress at a news conference Friday, along with other changes to the department - including new technology that will allow crime victims to report crimes online.
Kris Baumann, the leader of the D.C. police officers' union, said he was pleased by the homicide decline but disappointed that the numbers were as high as they were and by the fact that crime totals in several categories, including sex abuse, theft and theft from auto, had increased in 2011 from last year. Overall, total crime is up by 2 percent over last year, the figures show.
Baumann also said the police department doesn't get enough support from the D.C. Council.
"I'm thrilled and everyone is thrilled," he said, but added, "The numbers are still shocking."