The number of New York City homicide deaths this year, already plummeting to historic lows, is actually lower than police statistics show.
That's because of the way older killings, such as the alleged murder of Etan Patz, are counted.
Removing four of those older cases further reduces the homicide count to 388 through Wednesday; compared with 493 during the same period in 2011.
New York City's homicide rate -- a crucial indicator of the safety of metropolitan areas -- is already among the lowest for large U.S. cities at 4.75 per 100,000 population.
In a process known as reclassification, police count old homicides such as Patz's disappearance in 1979 in this year's totals even though the killings or presumed deaths didn't occur this year.
Sometimes further study by the medical examiner or detectives leads to reclassifying a death as a homicide. Police finally were able to count the Patz case as a murder because Pedro Hernandez of New Jersey confessed earlier this year to killing the 9-year-old as the child walked to school in May 1979.
Hernandez has pleaded not guilty to the charge and is disputing the truthfulness of his confession.
"In the case of Etan Patz, there is an unknown date of homicide," NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly said last week in a statement. "It is simply a more practical way to record homicides over time than to go back to the year of occurrence."
Police officials have said the city may record fewer than 400 homicides this year, the fewest since 1960, when 390 homicides were reported. But that was before a recent spate of killings, including the Midtown daylight slaying of music promoter Brandon Woodard.
Sometimes a shooting or stabbing doesn't immediately kill a victim until years later. In 2012, police records show that eight people died as the result of injuries suffered many years earlier, in one case as far back as 1973. Those deaths were reclassified as homicides this year, police said.
"As a bookkeeping matter, it makes sense to record the death in the year the person died even though the incident happened years earlier," Kelly said.
Though in some years the number of reclassified cases is inordinately high, the bookkeeping method has been done consistently since the early 1960s, Kelly and other officials noted.