NEW YORK – Chicago and New York are about to close out 2007 with the lowest number of homicides in more than 40 years, while cities such as Baltimore, Atlanta and Miami have seen killings go up because of what police say is a surge in guns and gang violence.
New York City reported 479 killings as of Dec. 23 — down 17 percent from the same period last year. The city is on track to have the lowest number of killings since reliable record-keeping started in 1963.
Homicides in New York reached an all-time high of 2,245 in 1990, making the city the U.S.'s murder capital. Since then, the numbers have plummeted, and experts attribute the decline in part to computerized tracking of crime trends and the practice of strategically flooding high-crime areas with police officers instead of spreading them evenly through the precincts.
Chicago is on track to have the lowest homicide toll since 1965, when police reported 395 killings. The city had logged 435 slayings through Dec. 26. In the early part of the decade, police often reported more than 600 a year.
Chicago officials credit the improvement to their tough stance on gangs, guns and drugs.
"Those three ingredients, so to speak, are what we're focused on," said police spokeswoman Monique Bond. "That's really what leads to random violence."
Those factors were blamed for increases in murders in other cities.
Atlanta had 126 homicides as of Dec. 26, compared with 111 for the same period a year ago. Police attributed some of the increase to a New Orleans-based gang that moved into town after Hurricane Katrina. Members of the International Robbing Crew are accused of killing at least seven people in Atlanta.
In Miami, authorities say the proliferation of assault weapons led to an increase in killings, from 56 in 2005 to 79 in 2006 and 86 so far in 2007.
"You just pull a trigger and 20 or 30 rounds come in a second and in those 20 rounds you're sure to hit your intended target and some innocent bystanders, totally unlike a firearm that is just one bullet every time you pull the trigger," Miami Police spokesman Willie Moreno said.
Earlier this year, Baltimore was headed for its bloodiest year in nearly a decade. But the violence eased up after a new police commissioner took office.
The bloodshed in Baltimore is blamed on entrenched poverty, widespread drug addiction, failing schools and easy access to guns.
Through Dec. 26, there were 280 homicides in Baltimore — four more than in all of 2006. Things looked even grimmer in mid-July, the day Police Commissioner Leonard D. Hamm resigned. At that point, Baltimore had 178 homicides, putting it on pace for a total of 325. The city has not topped 300 since 1999.
The new police commissioner, Frederick H. Bealefeld III, and Mayor Sheila Dixon have gone after repeat violent offenders more aggressively, flooded high-crime zones with officers, and revived a unit that traces illegal guns. Also, repeat gun offenders are being sent more frequently to the federal court system, where they face stiffer sentences.
"They have become more focused, appropriately, on getting illegal guns off the streets and violent gun offenders off the street," said Daniel Webster, co-director of the Center for Gun Policy and Research at Johns Hopkins University.
It has been a particularly bloody year for children in Baltimore: Twenty-seven of this year's homicide victims were under 18.
In Philadelphia, killings dipped this year after reaching a nine-year high of 406 in 2006. Through midnight Tuesday, the city had 390 slayings, or 11 fewer than at the same point a year ago.
Like Baltimore, Philadelphia is dealing with a rash of illegal handguns that officials believe are being used to resolve minor disputes.
In other big cities, Phoenix reported 207 killings at the end of November, just shy of last year's total of 214 for the same period; Boston had 66 slayings as of Dec. 28, compared with 71 by the same point in 2006; Dallas was on track to finish considerably higher, with 200 homicides as of Dec. 26, versus 175 last year.