AS Philadelphia approaches the new year and a new mayor, the murder rate remains an appalling blight on the city's reputation and a threat to our quality of life.

While shootings and other violent crimes are down from last year, there's only slight improvement from the 406 homicides recorded in 2006. As of last night, the city had suffered 391 murders in 2007, the highest rate per 100,000 residents among the nation's 10 largest cities.

It hasn't always been this bad.

From 1998 through 2002, Philadelphia's homicide rate went down and stayed down. Look at the numbers:

In the six years before 1998, Philadelphia averaged 423 murders a year.

Then for five years, we averaged 309, a 27 percent drop. Starting in 2003, murders began rising again.

Were we doing something right during that five-year period of decline? Are there lessons to be learned?

Opinions vary widely about why Philadelphia's rate dipped and then soared, but it seems clear that when Philadelphia had fewer killings, it had more cops on the street, more federal aid for law enforcement, and different leadership in the Police Department.

Numbers matter

As the homicide rate soared in the early to mid-1990s, Philadelphia's police force declined from nearly 6,400 to about 6,000.

But then the force began to grow, in part with funding from the 1994 National Crime Bill. By the middle of 1998, when the homicide rate began its five-year decline, the police force had grown to 6,900 officers.

The size of the force began declining in 2003 - coinciding with the rise in homicides. By 2006, the force was back down to 6,433, and homicides were back up over 400.

The police force shrank at the same time as federal aid did.

A study by the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority showed that in 1999, the city got $14.4 million from the feds to put cops on the street. By 2002, Washington had stopped giving any money.

"The feds are putting money that used to go into community policing into things like DNA databases," said Temple University criminologist Ralph Taylor.

There have been modest changes in Philadelphia unemployment, poverty and incarceration rates during the rise in homicides, but the numbers don't offer a ready explanation the trend.

Philadelphia was not alone in its rising murder rate, and several other old and smaller industrial cities have murder rates higher than ours.

But there are cities - particularly New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Boston - that didn't suffer a big increase.

Changes at the top

Did the leadership of the Police Department and the rest of city government have an impact?

It's a controversial subject.

The decline in Philadelphia's murder rate coincided with the tenure of Police Commissioner John Timoney, and overlapped with a period when then-Mayor Ed Rendell was particularly focused on guns and gun crime.

For the first five years of Rendell's tenure as mayor (1992-96), the city's murder rate soared. But the administration focused on crime and guns in his second term and made visible progress.

From 1998 to 2000, veteran police commander Richard Zappile was deputy mayor for gun violence. Recreation Commissioner Michael DiBerardinis was developing anti-violence programs, and Rendell was making national news criticizing gun manufacturers and liberal gun laws.

There was an emphasis among police on confiscating guns on the street, and there were partnerships with federal agencies to track illegal gun sales and to shut down traffickers.

Starting in 2000, the Youth Violence Reduction Project, a youth-intensive outreach effort based on a successful model in Boston, was initiated in one police district.

And Timoney brought a tough statistics-driven approach to fighting crime and regularly moved commanders he regarded as underperforming.

Several former Rendell administration officials said they believe that those efforts made a difference. None would speak publicly, both because they were reluctant to criticize their successors, and because they said they weren't as aware of current crime-fighting efforts.

Sylvester Johnson, who succeeded Timoney as police commissioner, has been popular among community activists, and along with Mayor Street has pursued a series of crime-fighting initiatives.

The most visible was Operation Safe Streets, a massive crackdown on open-air drug sales begun in 2002. It achieved dramatic short-term results in some neighborhoods, but the effort was expensive and ultimately impossible to sustain.

That was followed in early 2006 by Operation Safer Streets, a plan to put more cops in high-crime areas and intensify social service and community programs there.

Later that year, Johnson announced plans for an elite unit to tackle high-crime areas during night hours. The unit would report directly to the commissioner.

In July 2006, Street made a televised appeal to city's youth to "lay down your weapons," and earlier this year he announced a program to flood the 12th District in Southwest Philadelphia with cops and other city services in response to violent crime.

The administration also expanded the Youth Violence Reduction Project and initiated special curfew- and truancy-enforcement programs.

And still the murder rate has risen.

Thomas Nestel, who recently retired from the department as staff inspector, worked as a district commander under Timoney and Johnson.

"Johnson brought the same intensity to crime-fighting that Timoney did," Nestel said, "but my sense is that we started to over-specialize. We had these special units, and the focus on patrol cops in the districts got slimmer and slimmer."I think the district cops started to feel less responsible for stuff in the sectors, because there were special units to handle that," Nestel said. "But of course there weren't enough specialists to handle problems all over the city."

Johnson is deeply pained by the murders in his city, but thinks Philadelphia is unfairly compared with more-well-off cities.

And he has a different view of what drove down the city's murder rate in 1998.

"I was deputy commissioner in 1997 and '98, and we attacked the narcotics problem with Operation Sunrise [a massive crackdown in drug-dealing areas]," he said. "I think more of our homicides were drug-related then, and the murder rate came down."

Johnson said the rise in the murder rate in recent years is a national trend, and notes that it's worse in Baltimore, Washington and Detroit than in Philadelphia.

He argues that it isn't fair to compare Philadelphia with more-affluent cities like New York.

Johnson also acknowledges that he has struggled with diminished resources.

He declined to say whether he argued with Street about the decline in police staffing, but said, "I did go to City Council and ask for another 500 officers. We worked with what we got."

In 2006, Council forced Street to authorize the hiring of an additional 100 police, when Street had argued for more police overtime instead.

The bottom line is that the department today has 400 fewer officers than it had a few years ago.

Johnson has always argued that the city needs more jobs and opportunity in poor neighborhoods and a change of attitude among its young people.

This fall he actively supported an effort to recruit 10,000 black men to patrol high-crime neighborhoods in the city. *