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 in 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 fallen 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 1991 street riots. ''It strikes me quite often how different things are now.''
The drop reflects a downward trend in violent crime nationwide and is in line with declining homicides in other big cities. Though murder has risen in Chicago, New York City officials say homicides sank to 515 last year from 2,262 in 1990. Houston police reported 198 homicides last year, down from 457 in 1985, while Los Angeles ended last year with fewer than 300 after reporting 1,092 in 1992. Across the country, violent crime reported by police to the FBI fell by 3.8 percent last year from 2010.
Though the nation's capital is hardly crime-free today, and crime in some categories is up, the homicide decline is notable in a place where acts of violence — sometimes not far from the US 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 1994, a staggering rate that attracted unwanted attention. ''A war zone? No, Washington, D.C.,'' was the sub-headline of a 1992 People magazine story, while The Economist in 1995 called it ''the violence capital of America.''
The 1990 crack cocaine arrest of then-mayor Marion Barry fed a perception that the city where the nation's laws were made was, itself, lawless.
''If you asked people what would happen first, there'll be a thousand murders in D.C. in a year or there'll be less than a hundred, I think virtually everybody would have said there would be 1,000,'' said John Roman, of the Washington-based Urban Institute.
Everyone agrees there's no single cause for the trend.
One overarching factor is the city’s gentrification — the 2011 median household income of $63,124 is higher than all but four states, census data show. Whole city blocks have been refashioned, drug dens razed, a Major League Baseball stadium built in place of urban blight, highrise public housing replaced by less-dense garden style apartments. Though the poverty rate has risen, the growing wealth has pushed impoverished communities farther away from the city center.