Orlando Set to Shatter 1982 Homicide Record

Mickey Mouse made this medium-sized city loom much larger in the public eye than its population would suggest, but this year it has been running up a big-city statistic its residents would be better off without.

In less than seven months this city of about 215,000 reported 33 homicides, more than it's seen in any full year except one. It's only three shy of its 1982 record, and on pace to have one of the 15 worst per-capita murder rates in the country.

Victims include a 6-year-old apparent child abuse victim who died of severe head injuries and a 22-year-old shot in the back of the head for unknown reasons. Shortly after New Year's Eve, a transient stabbed near a homeless camp bled to death on the same day an 18-year-old's bullet-riddled body lay on the street; two gunmen had apparently mistaken the youth for someone they were feuding with.

"People can attribute crime to failing schools, failing families. There's a bunch of sociological things you can put your finger on," said police Sgt. Rich Ring, head of Orlando's homicide investigation unit. "All we can do as police is say the biggest things are drugs and robbery, and we're going to take action to attack those issues."

FBI figures from 2005 released last month showed a 2.5 percent increase in violent crime nationwide — the largest since 1991 — and a 4.8 percent rise in murders.

Jacksonville, Florida's murder capital for 12 of the past 17 years, is on track to hit more than 130 homicides for the first time in more than a decade. Washington, D.C., police this month called a crime emergency amid rising incidences of robberies and armed assaults, and Detroit is on pace to hit 460 slayings, a 22 percent increase over 2005.

But this is new territory for this quickly growing tourism mecca, where tens of millions flock to Universal Studios, SeaWorld and nearby Walt Disney World every year. Orlando ranked 107th in per-capita murders in 2004, the most recent FBI rankings available.

Most of this year's slayings were committed with handguns. Most victims were young black men who were involved with drugs or got killed by someone who was, Ring said.

The crimes have been scattered across the city, but mostly in neighborhoods west of downtown and away from tourist attractions.

Police Chief Mike McCoy stressed that no tourists had been killed, and said most law-abiding citizens are not at risk.

"If you're not selling drugs, if you don't house people selling drugs, if you don't have the proceeds of drugs in your home, then your chances of being involved in a homicide are pretty slim," he said.

Visitors do not appear to be worried. Downtown bars and clubs still crowd at night, families continue to arrive in droves at theme parks and joggers and dog-walkers still make their way around city parks after dark.

Even many in the hardest hit areas say they were not aware of an increase in homicides.

"I've been here most of my life," said Mike Spalding, 40. "It's unsafe sometimes. It's about the same."

Sierra Cunningham, a 17-year-old toting her 1-year-old daughter to the bus stop, said she had heard killings were on the rise, but did not know of anyone taking extra safety precautions.

"Around my neighborhood it's OK," she said. "Just a lot of people hanging out drinking all the time."

Even before the spike, Orlando planned a new public safety initiative to put 75 additional officers on the street, add two detectives to the violent crime unit and create new police substations.

Mayor Buddy Dyer said he's confident law enforcement has a handle on the situation, noting that arrests have been made in most homicide cases.

"We want to work on educating the public in terms of changing the culture of silence that exists in some of our neighborhoods, and we want to look at some of the policing practices that other cities that have experienced an increased in homicides have used effectively," Dyer said.