Major cities across the nation experienced sharply fewer homicides in 1996, hitting 30-year lows in some cases and driving an overall drop in violent crime that began five years ago and now appears to be accelerating.
Each of the nation’s 10 largest cities and many smaller ones showed decreases in the numbers of slayings this year compared to 1995, according to a survey of large city police departments conducted by The Washington Post over the past several days.
The District of Columbia was among the few prominent exceptions, with the number of homicides in the nation’s capital up nearly 10 percent over last year.
As the final hours of 1996 drew to a close, New York City appeared likely to finish the year with fewer than 1,000 homicides for the first time since 1968.
The symbolic importance of the 1,000-murder mark wasn’t lost on the Police Department or the media, which watched the count with the intensity of Yankees fans caught in a pennant race.
The New York Post recorded the tally each day on what looked like a big odometer. Police spent the holidays rounding up wanted wife-batterers and walking the beat outside nightclubs known for violence.
With the exceptions of Chicago and Philadelphia, which registered more modest declines, all of the nation’s 10 largest cities saw the number of homicides drop by at least 15 percent over the previous year.
These statistics mark some of the sharpest and most widespread decreases in urban murders recorded in recent years.
No single cause explains the decline in homicides. Instead, criminologists and government experts cite a variety of factors ranging from demographic changes to new policing tactics and greater resources available to law enforcement.
The aging of the overall population, for example, has meant that the number of people in the most violence-prone age groups, the teens and 20s, has declined in recent years. In addition, the illicit drug trade has become notably less violent than it was when crack cocaine was first becoming a major street drug in the mid 1980s.
“An awful lot of the growth in homicides was associated with drug markets (particularly crack),” said Alfred Blumstein, a criminologist at Carnegie Mellon University.
“After a while, a lot of drug dealers have found other means of dispute resolution and either explicitly or implicitly acknowledged each other’s turf. We saw the same sort of process with the Mafia.”
Gang violence has declined in many cities, due in part to the activities of community gang intervention organizations and police programs that target street gangs.
Andrew Karmen, a professor at John Jay College in New York City who studies the murder rate, agreed that more aggressive police work has reduced the carnage, especially among young minority men. Blacks, who were killed at a rate of 58 per 100,000 in 1991, saw the rate fall to 31 per 100,000 in 1995 - the steepest decline of any race.
Even with the dramatic decline, the number of killings is “still very high,” Karmen said. “Shocking, really.”