By Andrew Maykuth
The Philadelphia Inquirer
PHILADELPHIA — It's too soon to declare victory is at hand, but the city's much-ballyhooed homicide rate appears to be slowing down, and this week the tally fell slightly behind last year's figure.
After outpacing the 2006 rate for much of the year by 5 percent or more, the killing has slowed in recent months. Philadelphia officially recorded 320 homicides by midnight Wednesday, one fewer than were recorded by the same date last year.
The oft-cited daily tally can change quickly. Another triple homicide could put the city ahead of last year's pace. Or an outbreak of peace, love and understanding could slow the pace closer to that of 2002, when Philadelphia experienced the lowest homicide rate in the last two decades.
But as the year progresses, it seems increasingly likely that Philadelphia's homicide rate will not be substantially different from what it was last year, when 406 murders were recorded. And with each day, the 1990 record of 503 homicides is more likely to remain intact.
Police Commissioner Sylvester M. Johnson said there are many reasons the rate appears to have stabilized in recent months, but mostly the factors governing the volume of people killing each other are a mystery and beyond the influence of law enforcement.
"We didn't take responsibility for it going up, and we're not going to take credit for it going down," said Johnson. "The fact is that  people's families have been devastated by homicide, and that's still too many."
To city officials, the plateau in the murder rate provides a small sense of relief. From their standpoint, the broader indicators of crime appear to be on the decline this year.
"The number of violent crimes is down 6 percent compared to last year," said Joe Grace, Mayor Street's spokesman. "The number of shootings is down 13 percent compared to last year. And now the homicides have leveled out compared to this time last year."
Johnson said police had confiscated more guns this year — 3,371 firearms, up 38 percent from last year. And police have arrested more people this year — 58,654 arrests so far, up 3 percent.
"Overall, crime in the city of Philadelphia is down," he said. "It's a little frustrating at times that the entire department is judged on the basis of one crime, murder."
Since increasing dramatically in the late 1960s when the city's demographics changed — homicides disproportionately affect the city's African American population — Philadelphia's murder rate has gone through an upsurge about once every decade.
The worst period peaked in 1990, when the city experienced a deadly confluence of crack cocaine, more lethal 9mm semiautomatic weapons, and a larger population of young men in their late teens and 20s, the cohort most likely to commit murder and to be killed.
Since the city's population has declined by 30 percent since its peak in the late 1960s, criminologists say it is more fair to compare the rate of homicides per 100,000 people. Even by that measure, 1990 was the city's deadliest year, when 31.7 homicides were recorded per 100,000 people. To surpass that rate, Philadelphia would have to record about 463 homicides this year.
Though Philadelphia recorded the highest murder rate among the nation's top 10 cities last year — CNN last week broadcast a segment on homicides that featured "Killadelphia" — it was not the nation's deadliest city last year.
Among cities with populations of 100,000 or more, Detroit; Baltimore; Washington; Oakland, Calif.; New Orleans; St. Louis; Cincinnati; Newark, N.J.; Birmingham, Ala.; Richmond, Va.; Little Rock; Kansas City, Mo.; Flint, Mich.; Inglewood, Calif.; and Gary, Ind., recorded higher murder rates last year than Philadelphia, according to FBI figures.
Though Johnson did not take credit for the stabilization in homicides, Grace, Street's spokesman, said the city's efforts played a part.
Grace said the city's addition of about 200 police this year, partially offsetting years of shrinkage, contributed to the reduction. So did the concentration of forces in Southwest Philadelphia, he said, as well as the opening of 11 curfew centers to remove young people from the streets.
"We think all these things cumulatively can and will and are having an impact," said Grace.
Copyright 2007 The Philadelphia Inquirer
Phila.'s homicide rate cools