The District is on pace to finish the year with fewer than 200 homicides, a significant drop from last year and a mark not reached for nearly two decades.

Through the first six months of the year, the District recorded 91 killings, down about 25 percent from the same period in 2003, when the city had 122. At the current rate, the city will end the year with about 180 homicides.

The last time the city recorded fewer than 200 killings was in 1986, when it tallied 196. That was before the spread of crack cocaine and firearms sparked a surge in homicides that gave Washington the notorious distinction of being the nation's "murder capital." In 1991, the city had 482 killings.

"It's good to be sitting in this position and looking at these numbers," D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey said last week. "It's all going in the right direction."

The number of homicides from October through last month is down 25 percent, or 152 vs. 203 during the same period a year ago. This shows that the drop is not just a blip, Ramsey said.

"This is something that is holding up a little longer than since January," said Ramsey, who joined the department as chief in 1998.

Overall crime during the first six months of the year was down 12 percent, and violent crime had declined 17 percent compared with the same period in 2003, according to preliminary police statistics.

Police officials said they believe that some of the crime drop can be attributed to strategies crafted at daily meetings of commanders. The sessions, which take place in a room filled with high-tech computers and screens that display crime maps, allow commanders to brainstorm and react quickly to flare-ups of violence, Ramsey said.

The chief said the city has benefited from his decision to call a crime emergency in late August after numerous incidents of gang-related violence and several high-profile homicides. The emergency measure canceled rules that required commanders to give officers 14 days' notice before changing their schedules. Under the rules, commanders were given more flexibility to deal with outbreaks of crime. Ramsey ended the crime emergency in January.

The chief also credited partnerships with other city agencies that focus on hot spots of crime and other problems in troubled neighborhoods.

While saying that D.C. police deserve some credit, criminologists said that societal factors were probably playing a larger role -- a view echoed by some D.C. Council members. These include a strong economy, robust housing market and the ebbing of turf battles among gangs over crack cocaine, they said.

Council member Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4), often a sharp critic of the department, said he has noticed officers and commanders responding more aggressively to crime in recent months.

Still, Fenty expressed concern about the number of juveniles slain this year on city streets. Thirteen youths have been killed this year, one more than recorded during all of last year. One, 8-year-old Chelsea Cromartie, was slain by a stray bullet that pierced a window of her aunt's living room in May. Fenty said that police need to do more to prevent such violence.

"That is a signal that we are heading in the wrong direction," Fenty said of the juvenile killings. "I'm glad homicides are going down. In most other respects, we have a long way to go."

Even as the homicide rate has slowed this year, community activists have kept up the pressure on police, particularly after several high-profile killings.

James Richardson, 17, was fatally shot inside Ballou Senior High School in February. Jahkema "Princess" Hansen, 14, was shot to death in January, five days after authorities said she witnessed another killing in her neighborhood. Police made quick arrests in those cases but have yet to solve the killing of former school board member Terry Hairston, 38. Hairston was found shot to death in his Southeast Washington home in May.

Detectives have arrested suspects in 30 of the District's 91 killings this year. They have closed two cases administratively, they said, because the suspects in the slayings had been killed.

Washington recorded more than 400 killings a year from 1989 through 1993. During the next decade, the numbers gradually declined, largely mirroring national patterns. Last year, the city registered 248 homicides. Although that was a far cry from the carnage a decade go, it still was the highest per capita total of any city with more than 500,000 residents.

The homicide picture in other large cities is mixed. Houston, which many criminologists view as a barometer of crime in the United States, recorded 112 homicides through May, up from 93 during the same period last year.

Boston and Los Angeles also have posted increases. New York's homicide rate is down slightly. Baltimore, which has a crime rate comparable to the District's, is on pace to end the year with about 270 killings, nearly the same as in 2003.

In most Washington suburbs, the number of killings has remained fairly steady compared with last year. However, Prince George's County is on pace to have more killings than any year since 1996. Through the first six months of the year, Prince George's police said that 68 people had been killed, a 13 percent increase over last year.

Criminologists said that homicides and other crimes have fallen steeply across the country since the early 1990s, when drug gangs were gripped in fierce battles over turf.

"We have not seen a drug reappear with the violence associated with its buying and selling on the streets like we saw in the late 1980s and early 1990s with crack cocaine," said Richard Rosenfeld, chairman of the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

Rosenfeld and other specialists also attributed the drop in crime to higher incarceration rates -- nearly 2.1 million people are being held in prisons across the country -- and an improving economy during the mid- to late 1990s.

When the economy slumped in recent years, some jurisdictions experienced an increase or stabilization in homicide rates, the criminologists said.

Washington avoided the worst of that economic downturn, which may play a part in the declining homicide rate, the criminologists said.

The District's unemployment rate in May was 7.5 percent, an improvement over May 1998, when the rate was 9.1 percent, according to the Labor Department.

Staff writers Neil Irwin, Tom Jackman, Phuong Ly, Eric Rich and Jamie Stockwell and staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.

After a daily briefing at police headquarters, Executive Assistant Police Chief Mike Fitzgerald, left, talks with Assistant Chief Brian Jordan. Behind them are Chief Charles H. Ramsey, left, and Assistant Chief Alfred J. Broadbent Sr.