An article Sunday incorrectly reported that the number of homicides declined last year in all but two suburban Washington jurisdictions. In addition to increases in Howard and Prince William counties, the number of homicides also increased in Fairfax, Loudoun, Fauquier and Calvert counties, as a chart accompanying the article showed. The article also incorrectly reported the total number of homicides in the District in 1999; there were 229, including one on New Year's Eve. (Published 01/04/2000)
The number of slayings in the District fell last year to 228, the lowest level since 1987, at the beginning of the crack-fed drug wars. Homicides in the Washington suburbs also declined about 8 percent, except in Howard County in Maryland and Prince William County in Virginia.
The 12 percent decline in District homicides tracked closely the 13 percent decrease reported nationally during the first six months of the year, and bucked the trend of several large cities, including New York and Los Angeles, where the number of homicides increased after several years of decline.
Nationally, the homicide rate has reached its lowest point since the late 1960s, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics.
"People should keep this in perspective: This is a major decrease from just a few years ago," Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington think tank, said of the decrease in the District. "It's significant progress. I think the number can go down even lower, but it's come down a long way."
Although the District's annual homicide total declined gradually for five years after peaking at 489 in 1991, it began to plunge dramatically after 1996. Over the past three years, it has dropped by 42 percent.
Researchers and law enforcement officials said the drop can be attributed to several factors: low unemployment, an aging population, more criminals behind bars and fewer warring gangs on the street.
The District also has fewer residents: The population has fallen by 14 percent since 1990, from 606,000 to 519,000. That decline is leveling off, however, with a loss of just 2,400 people in the most recent year reported, the smallest decrease since the mid-1980s.
While other serious crimes across the country are also down by about 10 percent, according to FBI statistics for the first six months of 1999, the latest available, there was little indication that the declines have made Washington area residents feel safer.
"It's one of the great ironies that crime is down," said Jim Myers, who has lived for 12 years in the area now known as Patrol Service Area 109, which runs between Eastern Market, at Seventh Street and Independence Avenue SE, and the D.C. jail, at 19th and D streets SE.
"I don't think it has registered with anyone from this neighborhood," said Myers, who has helped organize neighborhood patrols. "They are still shaken up by murders."
There have been 33 homicides since 1992 in Area 109, of which 20 are unsolved.
Homicides have also frayed nerves in some formerly peaceful suburban counties, seemingly a world apart from the heart of Washington.
In Prince William County, the number of slayings reached an all-time high of 14 last year, double the total from 1998. Four people were killed in the space of nine days last summer, including the 25-year-old Woodbridge woman who was beaten to death while driving to church with her children.
"No one even had heard of road rage 10 or 15 years ago," said David C. Mabie, clerk of the Circuit Court in Prince William. "We are growing as a county, and there's some argument that the family structure and civility in general is breaking down."
Howard County, an hour's drive north of Washington, also set a record for homicides last year with eight. Two years ago, the county recorded a single killing.
Fears flared in November, when two people were shot to death along a walking path in the planned community of Columbia. Police said they suspect the slayings were related to drugs but have not made an arrest, adding to the unease about crime in Howard, which has grown by 30,000 residents in the past five years.
In Washington particularly, the police department has struggled to find a consistent approach to solving homicides. In the District, homicide detectives have been shifted between headquarters and district stations several times over the years.
Last week, Chief Charles H. Ramsey demoted the lieutenant in charge of homicides in the 6th District and reassigned three other detectives after he learned they bungled the investigation into the slaying of two teenage girls in Southeast Washington.
"We want to treat each murder like it was a cop in our family who was killed," D.C. Executive Assistant Chief Terrance W. Gainer said. "Even though there are less killings, people still have a sense of uneasiness. We still have teenagers getting killed. No one can sit back and say the job is done."
From 1987 through 1997, Washington had the worst homicide rate in the nation among cities with more than 400,000 residents. In 1990, there were 80 slaying victims for every 100,000 people.
Last year, the homicide rate stood at 44 per 100,000 people. But that is still more than twice the rate in other cities the size of the District. In 1997, the average homicide rate was 19 per 100,000 in cities with 500,000 to 1 million residents, the Bureau of Justice Statistics said.
A total of 228 people were slain in the District last year, down from 260 in 1998, according to D.C. police. Of the District's seven police districts, five recorded fewer homicides. The drop was most pronounced in the city's most violence-prone neighborhoods along the Prince George's County line and east of the Anacostia River.
"I call it the criminal-justice limbo stick--how low can you go?" said James Alan Fox, a criminal justice professor at Northeastern University. "Many of these big cities may be reaching their leveling-off point. . . . But I think Washington still has room for improvement. It can go lower."
Indeed, D.C. police officials said they are not satisfied with the results.
"We think we can do much better," Gainer said. "We have to stop treating murders like they are one and then another and then another and we will look into them. We are going to come down with the wrath of Khan on these murders."
Although Howard still has one of the lowest violent-crime rates in Maryland, concern is mounting. Robberies jumped 42 percent in the first nine months of 1999, compared with the same period the year before. Auto theft was up 14 percent.
"The murders were a wake-up call to the county and to the community that we have problems that we traditionally associate with the cities," said Bill Gray, vice chairman of the Oakland Mills Village Board and head of its anti-crime citizens' task force. "We need to aggressively deal with them to get them under control."
Other fast-growing counties in the fringes of Washington's orbit are experiencing similar problems. In Southern Maryland, Calvert County saw more than four times as many aggravated assaults (499) during the first nine months of 1999 compared with the same period the year before (106), according to figures from the Maryland State Police and Calvert County Sheriff's Office.
"There are more people here, and [they] bring their problems with them," said Calvert sheriff's Capt. Robert R. Hampshire.
The story is different in most of the other jurisdictions that ring Washington. In Maryland, homicides declined in Prince George's, Montgomery, Anne Arundel, Charles and St. Mary's counties. In Virginia, the number of slayings dropped in Alexandria and Arlington, although they rose in Fairfax.
In most of the suburbs, there are so few homicides that year-to-year fluctuations don't mean much, police said. The exception is in Prince George's, which usually records more killings each year than the rest of the suburban counties combined.
The number of people slain in Prince George's declined 11 percent, from 107 in 1998 to 95 last year--only the second time since 1986 that the annual total has dipped below 100.
As in past years, most of the homicides--about two-thirds--occurred inside the Capital Beltway in communities near the District line. Similarly, 60 percent of the slayings in Washington took place in the three police districts that border Prince George's.
But police on both sides of the line said they are making progress in the corridor, which is marked by the highest poverty rates in the region.
As part of a special task force, scores of D.C. and Prince George's police officers were deputized with federal powers last year so they had the authority to cross the border to make arrests. In the past, police officials said they had difficulty catching criminals who would often jump across the line, knowing that pursuing officers couldn't follow them.
"The offenders would cross the interstate lines with impunity," said Prince George's Police Chief John S. Farrell. "But we've put a lot of effort into solving that problem--a lot of effort."
Prince George's police also continued to pour resources into an effort to increase traffic stops along certain roads leading in and out of the District in an attempt to deter gun and drug traffickers.
The strategy contributed to a decrease in reported robberies of 27 percent between 1998 and last year, according to preliminary figures. Farrell said the number of armed commercial robberies hit a 20-year low last year.
"We've seen some stunning reductions," he said.
Staff writers Patricia Davis, Steven Ginsberg, Maria Glod, Annie Gowen, Raja Mishra, Matthew Mosk, Peter Pae, Arthur Santana and Emily Wax and staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.
HOMICIDES IN 1999
The number of slayings* in the District dropped by 12 percent last year and has steadily declined since its peak in 1991.
* does not include justifiable homicides
SOURCE: Police reports
THE WASHINGTON POST
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HOMOCIDES IN 1999
The number of slayings in the District dropped by 12 percent last year and has steadily declined since it hit a peak in 1991.
Homicides* in the District since 1980:
Homicides were also down overall in the Washington suburbs, from 184 in 1998 to 170 last year.
Number of homicides* in suburban jurisdictions in 1999:
Prince William714 UP
Prince George's10794 DOWN
Anne Arundel117 DOWN
St. Mary's52 DOWN
* does not include justifiable homicides
SOURCES: police reports, Maryland State Police Uniform Crime Report, FBI Uniform Crime Report