For one hot, bloody weekend in July, it was like old times in the nation's former murder capital.

Eleven people died violent deaths over a 48-hour period. One was a hospital worker gunned down by muggers near Chinatown (search). Another was shot and killed in a drug-related dispute.

But the rash of slayings proved a statistical aberration. At year's end, the New York Police Department (search) expects the annual homicide total for the third year running to mirror levels last seen in the early 1960s. Like then, the city of 8 million people should end up averaging fewer than two killings a day.

Police officials declined to discuss the results until an announcement later in the month. However, the latest statistics show murders totaled 528 through Dec. 7 — down 3.6 percent from the same period last year.

In 1990, New York had a record 2,245 homicides, far outpacing any other city in the nation. Murders are considered the most accurate and telling indicator of crime.

The dramatic drop in killings has helped give New York the lowest per-capita crime rate among the 10 most populous U.S. cities, according to City Hall's own calculations. Last year, the city had 2,922 serious crimes per 100,000 population; Dallas was first with 9,244 per 100,000.

"New York City has not only retained its title as the safest big city in the country, it has defied the odds and become even safer," Mayor Michael Bloomberg boasted earlier this year.

Theories about how New York earned that title vary. Some experts point to favorable shifts in demographics and the economy, as well as the crash of a once-thriving crack cocaine market that fueled violence in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Police officials at the 37,000-officer department, the nation's largest, credit their crime-fighting approach. They cite a tactic refined over the past decade in which commanders use computers to track crime patterns — particularly those involving guns and drugs — and deploy patrols where and when criminals are most active.

The rank-and-file, not strategists, deserve more praise and better pay for taming the streets, said Patrolmen's Benevolent Association President Patrick Lynch.

"It's the hard work and dedication of the police officers on the street that's allowing this city to remain safe," he said.