D.C., P.G. set to finish year with lowest murder totals in decades

The District is poised to finish the year with fewer than 100 murders for the first time since 1963, and neighboring Prince George's County likely will post its lowest homicide total in 25 years.

The "murder capital" of the United States two decades ago, the District has had 79 murders so far this year, according to police records. The annual number has been declining steadily since 2008 and is a far cry from the five years during the late-1980s and early-1990s crack epidemic, when the number of homicides never dropped below 400.

D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier attributed the drop to a focus on guns, more tips from residents and new technology as well as the city's Gang Intelligence Unit.

"Since they started in 2008, we have not seen the retaliatory shootings like we used to," Lanier wrote in an email. "They know all validated gang members, they interact with them directly during a beef, and they have great sources that help keep us one step ahead of the violence."

Homicide numbers have stayed relatively consistent in Montgomery and Fairfax counties, meanwhile. The former has averaged 18 murders a year since 2000, according to the FBI, while the latter has averaged 11 over the same period. Alexandria has had no murders so far this year.

Experts point to other factors that play into the decline.

John Roman, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, said richer residents bring increased economic development, which starts a cycle that drives down violence.

"In the '80s, crime begat crime," Roman said. "Now, safety begets safety."

Many have credited a nationwide drop in murders to better trauma center treatment for injuries like gunshot wounds. However, violent crime is down in D.C. and Prince George's -- the District has seen gun crimes decline for three straight years, and nonfatal shootings in Prince George's dropped from 180 last year to 152 so far this year.

As more young professionals moved into D.C., gentrifying neighborhoods and pushing out lower-income residents, transplants to Prince George's were supposed to bring higher crime rates with them. While murders there ticked up from 71 in 2000 to 169 in 2005 -- with a murder spree at the beginning of 2011 -- they have fallen to 59 so far this year.

Assistant Police Chief Kevin Davis said stepping up enforcement in other areas helps reduce the murder rate.

County police have been performing more traffic stops and focusing on establishments where violent crime is common. The county has shut down 13 dance halls since tightening regulations last year.

Officials are also crediting the county's Transforming Neighborhoods Initiative. The program targets six neighborhoods with high violent crime rates, and county agencies address public safety, education, health care and economic development there.

"As much as some might think that police work is a science, it's sometimes more of an art," Davis said. "The biggest change philosophically is the county executive's concerted effort to get all other agencies involved in public safety."

Roman said fears of a crime spike in Prince George's were exaggerated.

Location drives violent crime, he said, and violence that thrived in the dense poverty of parts of the District is muted in the sparser suburbs.

"To a large extent, the violence that occurred in D.C. was more about the places people lived than the people who lived there," Roman said. "If you can take people out of that place and disperse them, then a lot of the crime disappears."