By ERIC TUCKER
WASHINGTON (AP) - The crack epidemic that began in the 1980s ushered in a wave of bloodletting in the nation's capital and a death toll that ticked upward daily. Dead bodies, sometimes several a night, had homicide detectives hustling between crime scenes and earned Washington unwelcome monikers such as the nation's "murder capital." At the time, some feared the murder rate might ascend to more frightening heights.
But after approaching nearly 500 slayings a year in the early 1990s, the annual rate has gradually declined to the point that the city is now on the verge of a once-unthinkable milestone. The number of 2012 killings in the District of Columbia stands at 78 and is on pace to finish lower than 100 for the first time since 1963, police records show.
"It strikes me probably daily as I ride around the city, or sometimes when I'm sitting at home at night, and it's 10 o'clock and my phone's not ringing. Or I get up in the morning, and I go, `Oh my gosh, I've slept five hours," said Police Chief Cathy Lanier, who joined the department amid violent 1991 street riots. "It strikes me quite often how different things are now."
The drop reflects a downward trend in violent crime nationwide and is in line with declining homicides in other big cities. Though killings have risen in Chicago, New York City officials say homicides dropped to 515 last year from more than 2,200 in 1990. Houston reported 198 homicides last year, down from 457 in 1985, while Los Angeles police reported fewer than 300 last year after ending 1992 with about 1,100. Across the country, violent crime reported by police to the FBI fell by 3.8 percent last year from 2010.
Though D.C. is hardly crime-free today, and crime in some categories is even up, the homicide decline is especially notable in a place where grisly acts of violence _ sometimes not far from the U.S. Capitol _ embodied the worst of the crack scourge.
The number of homicides in this city of about 600,000 residents averaged about 457 between 1989 and 1993, a staggering rate that attracted unwanted attention. "A war zone? No, Washington, D.C.," was the sub-headline of a 1992 People magazine story that described Washington as a "city under siege." The Economist in 1995 called it "the violence capital of America." Tony Patterson, a longtime homicide detective, recalled one eight-hour shift when every detective on his squad landed a homicide investigation. Drive-by shootings with multiple victims were common, as were witnesses who'd see something _ but say nothing.
The 1990 arrest of then-Mayor Marion Barry for smoking crack cocaine fed a perception that the city where the nation's laws were made was, itself, lawless.
"If you asked people what would happen first, there'll be a thousand murders in D.C. in a year or there'll be less than a hundred, I think virtually everybody would have said there would be 1,000," said John Roman, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Urban Institute.
Everyone agrees there's no single cause for the trend.
One overarching factor is the city's continued gentrification _ the 2011 median household income of $63,124 is higher than all but four states, census figures show. Whole city blocks have been refashioned, drug dens razed, a Major League Baseball stadium built in place of urban blight, high-rise public housing replaced by less-dense garden style apartments. Though the poverty rate has risen, the growing wealth has pushed impoverished communities farther away from the city center. Some crime has also migrated to neighboring Prince George's County, Md., though homicides are down there too.
"There are just more physical places in Washington, D.C., that are affluent and safe than there used to be," Roman said.
Law enforcement techniques and medical care have advanced at the same time. Improved technology helps officers pinpoint gunfire, even before a 911 call, and share information faster. A police unit dedicated to seizing illegal firearms was re-established and prosecutors, benefiting from the city's strict gun laws, routinely ask that defendants arrested on weapons charges be held without bond _ in part, to head off possible retaliation. Stronger community relationships mean detectives have developed better sources on the street and witness cooperation, police say.
And better medical care, honed through lessons learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, means patients who were once stabilized at the scene are more likely to be taken directly to the hospital, where they have access to improved blood transfusion processes.