Some Big Cities See Homicides Drop in 2008

Several cities historically plagued by violence end year with fewer homicides.

Jan. 2, 2009— -- Violence-prone Philadelphia and Baltimore might have earned the respective nicknames "Killadelphia" and "Bodymore, Murderland" for good reason, but significant declines in homicides last year have officials in those cities and several others optimistic that they can keep the numbers down in 2009.

Although some of the nation's largest cities, such as New York and Chicago, saw spikes in homicides and others stayed in line with last year's numbers, Houston, Dallas and Detroit were among the cities with improved numbers, which officials attribute to new tactics and an increased police presence in troubled areas.

Baltimore, a city immortalized on the small screen in gritty police dramas "The Wire" and "Homicide: Life on the Street," saw murder statistics drop to a level not seen since the 1980s: a 17 percent dip, from 2007's 282 to 2008's 234.

"When you think about Baltimore, you're not thinking about robberies, you're thinking about murder," Police Commissioner Frederick Bealefeld told ABC News. "That's the crime situation for our city. Until you can demonstrate your ability to do something about murder, you can't get people focused on public safety."

As for the progress seen in 2008, Bealefeld said police aggressively monitored the parolees and probationers they considered to be the most dangerous and arrested them for parole and probation violations.

In addition, he said better cooperation with state and federal law enforcement and the police targeting of gun offenders by, among other things, creating a gun offender registry added to the drop in homicides.

"We really want to make Baltimore known as a very tough place to commit a gun crime," he said.

Cooperation with the state parole agency is key, Bealefeld said. "Culturally, a lot of those agents looked at their job as reforming their clients," he said. "Now, they're starting to shift that culture to say the first obligation is to the community, to keep the community safe. If you have a client who poses a danger to the community, you should be working to get that client in jail."

Better State-City Cooperation

Kristen Mahoney, director of the Maryland governor's Office of Crime Control & Prevention, who used to work for the Baltimore police, said the state was making an effort to cooperate with the city's crime-fighting efforts. Previously, "there was nobody at home when we called the state. Today, we are in lock step with Baltimore."

In Philadelphia, there were 392 homicides in 2007, which the city's police department displays on its home page, showcasing a drop to 332 victims last year.

"Sixty more Philadelphians are alive today because of the great work of the Philadelphia Police Department," Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter said during a Tuesday news conference. The city's police chief, Charles Ramsey, added that it's "just nowhere near acceptable" for so many citizens to be victims of homicide.

"Granted, 60 fewer were killed this year," he said. "But we cannot and we will not rest until we get those numbers down significantly."

The city officials cited a new policy in which officers stop and frisk pedestrians and drivers as a contributing factor to the success. "If you don't have that gun on you today, you can't shoot" someone today, Nutter said.

Communities Working Together

Dallas saw a marked drop last year -- to 171 from 200 in 2007. Lt. Craig Miller, commander of the Dallas Police Department's homicide unit, said that figure, adjusted for population growth, rivals those from the late 1960s and is a vast improvement from the early 1990s, when homicides topped 500 per year.

Miller said the police department is constantly on the attack against the dangerous trio of "guns, gangs and drugs" but more police officers and constant communication have helped the situation.

The department's COMPSTAT system, which facilitates communication departmentwide through weekly meetings from the executive levels down to different police beats, allows the police to stay on top of crime trends and to be flexible with deployments.

"When you take it down to its lowest level, it's not just police working with police," it's an entire community working together, he said. And deployment of resources "in a strategic manner allows us to augment our violent-crime response."<-- page -->

More Officers on the Beat

Meanwhile, the Dallas Police Department has increased its ranks from about 3,000 officers to 3,400 in recent years. With new hires adding about 200 additional officers per year, the department is slated to reach 4,000 officers in the next five years. Miller also gives credit to the first responders. "Their technology has helped so much in recent years," saving lives that in the past could not be saved in the field, he said.

But despite an astonishing low of eight homicides in July, a month that saw 14 homicides the previous year and is part of the typically high-crime summer season, Miller says some homicides are simply not able to be controlled -- regardless of the best-laid plans.

From family disputes that result in tragedy, such as the shooting deaths of a mother and her two children earlier this month, to seemingly random crimes like the fatal highway shootings right before Christmas, Miller says police have to "work with the randomness of some homicides."

Although Dallas' 2008 homicide count dipped for the year, those two crimes contributed to a spike in homicides for the month, 23 compared to 2007's 14.

Watch the Long-Term Trends

Year-to-year declines are tangible statistics for a city but Peter Manning, a professor of policing and criminal justice at the College of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University in Boston, cautioned that long-term crime rates are more important than short-term rates.

He added that it's difficult to draw national conclusions from individual cities' numbers and that it's best to look at local conditions.

Manning suggested that "concentrated police in areas of high crime can produce a short-term dip" in homicide rates, and that cities with high residential turnover and movement tend to have a lot of unsettled neighborhoods, which can produce high-crime rates -- factors for the cities with successes in 2008 to keep in mind as they organize for 2009.

Looking to the new year, Miller of the Dallas Police Department is realistic about the success of 2008.

"We all know what goes down must go up at some point," he said. "If we just stay the course and go after the things we've been going after," the Dallas Police Department hopes to achieve similar success this year.