The District had fewer than 200 homicides last year for the first time in nearly two decades, a steep drop from the deadly bloodshed that was fueled by drugs and gangs in the 1980s and 1990s.
At the same time, the number of homicides climbed in neighboring Prince George's County. Homicides have more than doubled there in the past four years, with most of the violence occurring near the Prince George's-D.C. line. Authorities said they were unable to explain why killings are on the wane in one area and rising nearby.
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There were 198 killings in the District in 2004, down from 248 the previous year. Prince George's County had 148 homicides, up from 128 in 2003. Overall, 426 homicides occurred in the Washington area last year, down by 10.8 percent from 2003, when there were 478 killings.
Across the country, homicide rates have fallen substantially since the late 1980s, when crack cocaine's emergence sparked bloody street feuds. Outside experts and civic leaders said police are only one factor in deterring crime. The homicide decrease also appears to be driven by a stronger economy, the waning of the crack wars and the growing number of young men in prison, they said.
The region's most populous counties, Montgomery and Fairfax, again had a fraction of the homicides recorded in the District and Prince George's. There were 17 killings in Montgomery last year, down from 21 in 2003; Fairfax had 10 killings, the same as the previous year.
In the District, the drop in homicides was fairly even across the city. Neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River, for example, had 106 homicides last year, down from 130 in 2003.
The last time the city recorded fewer than 200 killings was in 1986, when it tallied 194 -- just before the crack wave gave Washington notoriety as the nation's "murder capital." In 1991, the city had 489 killings.
D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey said police got results by making more arrests and seizing more guns, rigorously analyzing crime trends and joining other city agencies in focusing on 14 "hot spots." Overall, crime in those areas dropped by 30 percent last year, he said.
"Aggressively attacking crime has had an impact on the streets," said Ramsey, who became chief in 1998. "We feel good that we were able to drive the numbers down."
Despite last year's reduction, the District remains one of the most deadly cities in the country. It posted a homicide rate of 35 per 100,000 residents. Baltimore and Detroit had higher rates -- 43 in Baltimore, 41 in Detroit, according to preliminary statistics. By comparison, Boston, which is about the same size as the District, had a rate of about 10 homicides per 100,000 residents.
D.C. police said that they determined motives in most of last year's killings and that the motives followed familiar patterns -- 49 people were slain in arguments, 33 in acts of retaliation, 30 in drug-related incidents and 21 during robberies.
City leaders and criminal justice specialists expressed concern about an increase in the number of juveniles who were slain in the city last year. Twenty-four people younger than 18 were killed, twice as many as in 2003.
"That is still where a problem can reemerge if we're not careful," said James Alan Fox, a criminology professor at Northeastern University who has closely studied homicide trends across the country. "It should remind us that the potential is there for a resurgence in youth homicides."
The juvenile victims included Jahkema Princess Hansen, 14, who was fatally shot in January while in a neighbor's townhouse off North Capitol Street NW -- five days after witnessing a homicide. James Richardson, 17, was killed inside Ballou Senior High School in Southeast in February, and Chelsea Cromartie, 8, was fatally wounded by a stray bullet that pierced a Northeast home in May. Arrests were made in all three cases.