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Philadelphia slaying tally on track to 40-year low

Slayings and shootings have dropped across the city this year. Top cop and experts say it's a result of smarter strategies.

IT'S HARD, if not downright impossible, to declare victory on violent crime in a large, diverse city like Philadelphia.

Poverty, a broken education system and the widespread availability of illegal guns remain huge problems in large swaths of the city, and getting a firm grip on all three is about as easy as wrestling an electric eel.

So victory remains an elusive concept. But you can make progress, and 2013 will go down as a year that saw the city make big strides in cutting down on its violent crime numbers - especially the homicide rate, a figure that remained depressingly high through much of the last decade.

As of yesterday, 247 homicides had been recorded this year - a 25 percent drop from the same date a year ago, according to police statistics.

The city is on track to have its lowest slaying tally since 1967, when 234 people were killed, and Frank Rizzo was the police commissioner.

Shootings across the city dropped 12 percent from last year - from 1,230 to 1,081 - through Dec. 17, the most recent date for which figures were available.

"Every year is a grind, and come Jan. 1, we start over," Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey said during an interview with the Daily News earlier this month.

"Our goal is the same. We have to continue to drive the numbers down even more."

As of Dec. 15, aggravated assaults had fallen 7 percent, gunpoint robberies had fallen 9 percent, residential burglaries had dropped 11 percent and retail thefts were down 9 percent from last year.

The number of recorded rapes, however, jumped alarmingly, from 927 to 1,210. Ramsey explained that this year, the legal definition of what constitutes rape was broadened to cover anal, oral and digital penetration.

Had that same definition applied last year, he said, the category would be showing a decrease, as well.

So what gives?

Why is the city showing such deep, across-the-board drops in crime - especially in the homicide count, which ended at 331 last year, and hadn't dipped below 300 since 2002?

Jerry Ratcliffe, chairman of Temple University's Department of Criminal Justice, pointed to an ongoing evolution in the way cops think about crime.

"If I can pick on one thing, it's the normalization of evidence and data being used to drive decisions, and seeing it become a normal practice in the districts," he said.

Ratcliffe and Temple researchers have worked closely with the department in recent years on several data-driven projects. One explored the effectiveness of increased foot patrols, while another showed the promise of having cops and other city government employees pool their resources to improve neighborhoods.

"There's a more strategic level of thinking taking place now than I remember 10 years ago," he said.

"I'm going to meetings where [commanders] are talking about how they're going to plan for the summer, and looking at previous summers for trends and patterns. It's a good sign."

Mayor Nutter, during an interview this month with WHYY, cited a "combination of factors" for the lower crime numbers, including smart policing strategies, support for the youth-violence reduction program, and efforts from the courts and the District Attorney's Office to levy harsher penalties on repeat gun offenders.

"I think the results we're seeing here are the fruits of some very hard labor," he said.

"This is the essence of what good policing and public safety and coordination with other stakeholders is all about.

"Our goal is to make this sustainable, to set this new low and then next year try to set an even newer low," Nutter said.

Neither District Attorney Seth Williams nor one of his top officials returned requests for comment.

But the lower slaying tally and related crime numbers aren't exactly cause for celebration.

The community activist group Mothers in Charge will hold a memorial ceremony at the Friends Center, 15th and Cherry streets, at 5:30 tonight for families who lost loved ones to violence this year.

"It's still nowhere near where it should be," said Dorothy Johnson-Speight, the founder and executive director of Mothers in Charge.

"That's still too many folks who have lost their lives because of senseless violence," she said. "When it's someone's mom or dad, or son or daughter, they don't care that the [homicide] number is down. . . . It's still their loved one that's been murdered."