Eight days into the new year, journalists in Detroit tallied the number of homicides in major cities across the country and announced that the District had replaced their town as the "murder capital of the country." To the dismay of District officials, the city's new moniker made headlines around the world. "It's been like a frenzy," Mayor Marion Barry said in a recent interview. "Once you start a name, it just becomes a name. You can't get rid of it." This is not the first time the District has been so besmirched. The current "murder capital" label is but a variation on an old -- and often sounded -- theme. Frequently over the last 50 years, the District has been called the most lawless and dangerous city in the country. Such accusations usually have accompanied a rise in the crime rate and invariably, increases in the crime rate have followed increased drug abuse in the city, criminologists said. "It appears that some of the peaks and valleys in the crime rate seem to be influenced by drug abuse," said Steve Rickman, director of the city's Office of Criminal Justice Plans and Analysis. "In the late 1960s and early 1970s when our crime rates were so high, we also had a serious heroin problem. Now, it's crack."'A Cesspool of Iniquity' The city was struggling to stem an influx of Chinese heroin in 1936 when U.S. Attorney Homer Stille Cummings called the District "the crime capital of the world," according to a book titled "Washington Confidential." That year 7,000 felonies, including 63 murders, were reported. An alarmed citizenry founded the Washington Criminal Justice Association to fight the crime wave and announced victory in 1944 when the number of reported felonies fell to 4,000. Six years later, crime rates were up again. "There is no doubt that Washington is a cesspool of iniquity and a Utopia for criminals," "Washington Confidential" authors Jack Lait and Lee Mortimer wrote in 1951. "The nation's capital has become one of the crime capitals of the nation." Lee and Mortimer noted that the murder rate doubled between 1949 and 1950, jumping from one killing for every 25,555 people, second then only to Chicago's murder rate, to one murder for every 11,000 residents. The authors blamed the District's then-lenient gun control laws and lax court system. Also in 1951, a special House subcommittee charged with investigating crime and law enforcement in the District castigated local law enforcement and found "no greater menace to society exists than . . . syndicated commercialized narcotic operations." After a relatively tranquil period during the 1950s and early 1960s, the District's crime rate again soared. In the wake of the riots of April 1968 after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., a campaigning Richard Nixon pronounced the District "one of the crime capitals of the nation." "The disorders and the crime and the violence that are now commonplace in Washington are more than a national disgrace," Nixon said, citing a 67 percent increase in the homicide rate between July 1967 and July 1968. "They are cause for grave national concern." The crime rate in the District hit an all-time high in 1969, with 83,040 felonies reported, according to the FBI's Uniform Crime Report. Congress subsequently increased the size of the District police force by 2,000 officers, and between 1969 and 1973, the department grew from 3,000 officers to 5,100. It has since decreased in size to about 3,950 officers. A dip in the crime rate in 1972 encouraged then-President Nixon to declare Washington "one of the safest cities in the country." According to FBI statistics, the crime rate continued to fall until 1978, when the current upswing in the crime rate began.Report's Findings Disputed City officials recently released a report showing that despite the record 372 homicides in 1988, the District ranked 16th among 31 large cities in major crime. District officials argued the report showed that Washington was far less dangerous than Atlanta, which was ranked number one. Criminologists challenged the report, noting that it combined nonviolent and violent crimes. Either way, both acknowledged that a city's reputation as a violent place has as much to do with perception as with statistics. "A lot of time when we're talking about crime and crime rates, we're talking about perception," said Richard Bennett, a professor at American University. "I think that when the average person hears of Washington, D.C., he thinks of the Capitol, the Washington Monument . . . . It's only when you have a lot of publicity focusing on crime in the District that they see crime as a problem."