The number of murders dropped by nearly 6 percent in the first half of 2004, an indication that a four-year climb may be ending, the FBI (search) reported Monday.

Preliminary figures provided to the FBI by more than 10,700 state and local police agencies show that overall violent crime (search) was down 2 percent from January to June of this year compared with the first six months of 2003. Violent crime includes murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault.

Among those crimes, the number of murders dropped the most at 5.7 percent, followed by robbery (5 percent) and aggravated assault (1 percent). Rapes increased 1.4 percent nationwide, though the increase was greater — 6.5 percent — in cities with populations of 1 million or more, according to the FBI.

The national crime rate has dropped to record lows in recent years but the number of homicides has been rising steadily. After reaching a low point in 1999 of about 15,500 homicides, the number crept up to more than 16,500 in 2003, or almost six murders for every 100,000 U.S. residents.

That was a 1.7 percent increase from 2002 and a jump of more than 6 percent since 1999. Still, the latest figure was 29 percent lower than the homicides in 1994.

The latest FBI report does not include raw totals for categories of crimes, only percentages of increase or decrease compared to the first half of 2003. The final report for all of 2004 will be released next fall.

The preliminary figures show a 1.9 percent decline in the property crimes of burglary, larceny and motor vehicle theft during the first six months of 2004. In addition, the FBI said arson was down by 6.8 percent from January to June.