Homicides in Nassau County fell to 18 last year from the 26 recorded in 2013 as the number of killings in Suffolk County held steady at 28, according to police records.
While the numbers demonstrate that Long Island, for its size and population, remains one of the least likely places for someone to become a victim of homicide, a Newsday examination of last year's homicides and interviews with investigators show:
Gang violence that leads to deaths continues to be a bigger problem in lower-income sections of Nassau and Suffolk.
Lack of cooperation with police remained pervasive in communities impacted by gang violence.
Most homicides were committed by people who knew their victims.
As in previous years, the firearms used in many of Long Island's gunshot deaths were illegal. The precise number of those deaths was not known, but police said taking illegal guns off the streets remained a priority in both departments because of continued killings with guns obtained illegally on the black market or through straw purchasers.
Suffolk Chief of Detectives William Madigan said county homicide totals probably would have been higher if not for a department initiative last year that targeted marijuana grow houses, shutting several of them down before they could be robbed -- the sort of crime that led to three homicides in 2013.
"Those were largely marijuana dealers' houses or involved some element of the drug trade," Madigan said. "This year , we had none" connected to grow house break-ins.
Both county police departments hailed the work of their homicide investigators and said they want to drive the number of killings lower in years to come.
Motives for killings last year were as varied as the types of guns, knives, machetes and other weapons used to commit them. Some killers were pursuing personal vendettas, while others were driven out of anger at their employers or relatives, investigators said.
As for the methods they used to kill, those too were often as different as their rationales, police said.
In one case, a Farmingdale man beheaded his mother -- a college English professor.
In another, a Brooklyn woman was beheaded by another woman in her building who claimed to be her landlord, a prosecutor said. That accused killer was charged with murder in Suffolk County after allegedly scattering her victim's severed body parts around Long Island.
Victims and perpetrators of last year's homicides came from a range of different age groups, backgrounds, and income brackets, records show.
There were child victims -- two babies in Suffolk County died after being shaken in separate cases -- as well as young, middle-aged, and older adults, police said.
Some victims died at home at the hands of ex-boyfriends or former friends, while others were dumped in the woods or left in the street, police said.
Focus on gang violence
Gang violence was a major focus for homicide detectives in both counties, police said. In Suffolk, about a third of the 28 homicides were gang-related, according to detectives.
In one of those cases, the fatal shooting in August of Milagro G. Canjura, 31, who was pregnant, investigators were exploring the theory that she was killed as revenge for informing to authorities about a different killing carried out by an MS-13 gang member.
Members or associates of that transnational gang, along with the Bloods and Crips, have been investigated or charged in connection with multiple homicides in recent years on Long Island.
Deaths like Canjura's have contributed to the problem of some witnesses from the communities where the incidents occurred refusing to cooperate in gang investigations -- an issue that's vexed detectives in gang-plagued parts of Long Island and the rest of the country for years.
The reluctance of some to cooperate in gang homicide probes is emblematic of the "snitches get stitches" philosophy common in areas impacted by gang violence, police said. Informing to detectives is tantamount to treason in the view of some gang members, who dish out threats or violent retribution to those who betray them, according to investigators.
As for Nassau, 11 of the county's 18 homicides last year occurred in the Village of Hempstead, where the murder rate -- when adjusted for population (about 55,000 people reside in the village) -- remains among the highest in the region, records show.
Homicides in Hempstead, where gang violence is a long-standing problem, are investigated by Nassau County homicide detectives.
Matching clearance rates
The clearance rate for homicides in both counties hovered near the national average percentage of 62 percent last year, records show.
Suffolk detectives said they had cleared 17 of their 28 homicides through Thursday, a 61 percent clearance rate, while Nassau police said they cleared 11 out of 18, also a 61 percent rate.
According to FBI standards, a homicide case is considered cleared once the perpetrator or perpetrators have been arrested, are dead, or when police have encountered a circumstance outside their control that prohibits the agency from arresting, charging and prosecuting the offense -- such as the alleged killer having fled to a foreign country.
Long Island's 2014 homicide totals are consistent with those recorded the past two years.
Suffolk police said they investigated 27 homicides in 2013 and 23 in 2012, while Nassau police said they recorded 26 homicides in 2013 and 27 in 2012.
One of Suffolk's 2014 homicide victims was actually shot in 2013 but did not die of that injury until the following year, police said.