WASHINGTON -- 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.
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 2,262 in 1990.
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 more than 600,000 residents averaged about 457 between 1989 and 1993, a staggering rate that attracted unwanted attention. The 1990 arrest of then-Mayor Marion Barry for smoking crack fed a perception that the city where the nation's laws were made was itself lawless.
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.