Homicides in Suffolk County fell to 23 last year, a 10-year low for the county and a dramatic decrease from 2010, when detectives investigated 50 killings and solved fewer than half of them, records show.
The decrease in homicides was part of an overall decrease in violent crime, which fell 3.9 percent in Suffolk last year, according to records.
In Nassau County, homicides rose from 23 in 2011 to 28 in 2012. Detectives cleared 20 of the 28 cases, for a 71 percent clearance rate, according to department records. In 2011, they solved 17 of 23 homicides, records show, for a 74 percent clearance rate.
The Suffolk homicide squad cleared 13, or 56.5 percent, of the 23 homicides recorded in 2012 -- an improvement from 2010 when 44 percent of Suffolk slayings were solved.
The 2010 total included four women whose remains were found that December in the Gilgo Beach area after being slain by one or more killers.
Suffolk's 2012 clearance rate was still lower than the national average of 64.8 percent, last calculated by the FBI in 2011. It was also lower than the 62.5 percent clearance rate tallied by the department in 2011, when detectives solved 20 of 32 homicides.
Suffolk saw an average of 36 homicides per year from 2007 to 2011, according to records compiled by the state. The department's homicide total last year was the lowest since 2002, when it reported 18 killings.
"I'm satisfied with the amount of hard work and dedication that the detectives here apply to the cases," said Det. Lt. Jack Fitzpatrick, who took command of the homicide squad again in March 2012 after being moved from that job to a different post in January 2010. "But I'll never be satisfied with the outcome until there's a 100 percent clearance rate."
The clearance rate includes all cases in which police made an arrest, the suspect died or could not be extradited from another country.
John Azzata, commanding officer of Nassau's homicide squad, said the agency was "pleased with our clearance rate; however we strive to solve every murder."
Suffolk Chief of Department James Burke said that county's lower homicide total was the result of several factors, including an increased emphasis on capturing Suffolk's most dangerous criminals and improved police technology like license plate readers, surveillance cameras and ShotSpotter, an electronic system that instantly alerts police to shootings in certain areas.
Burke said increased cooperation between police and residents -- as well as communities taking a more active role in speaking out against crime in their own precincts during the past few years -- has also led to the dip in homicides.
"Communities now are more engaged than ever before in fighting violence," Burke said.
Suffolk's year of homicides began on Jan. 21, 2012, when police say Teresa Heredia, 29, of Mastic, was choked to death by her live-in boyfriend. The year ended with the Dec. 4 stabbing death of Jasmine Davis, 20, of Patchogue, by her ex-boyfriend, police said. In both cases, the murder suspects were arrested. Both pleaded not guilty and are awaiting trial.
Between those cases, detectives worked an array of homicides. Some remain unsolved, including the death of an unidentified person whose skeletal remains were found Feb. 17, 2012, in a rural area in Manorville.
Experts on crime trends say the decrease in homicides is a positive sign for the county -- even though the clearance rate is below average.
"You still have a not insignificant number of people getting away with murder," said Eugene O'Donnell, a professor of law and police studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. "But the combination of a reduction of lethal violence coupled with improvement in bringing people to justice is a triumph when you compare the Suffolk story to other places in urban America. It's extremely heartening to see such a low number of homicides and the numbers going in the right direction."
The key for the department now, O'Donnell said, is not to rest on its laurels.
"A wise police executive now would redouble their efforts and redouble their focus to at least do as well this year as they did last year, or drive the number even lower," he said.