Homicide trend inches down again

LAWRENCEVILLE -- Gwinnett County is on pace for its first consecutive yearly decline in homicides this century.

Police agencies across Gwinnett have so far tallied 36 homicides this year, a step down from last year's total (38) and a substantial drop from 50 killings in 2007, the bloodiest year on record.

Should the most recent data hold through next Friday, it'd represent a first in a tumultuous decade of statistical peaks and valleys: back-to-back declines in killings. Records show a monthly average of one homicide since September, and December appears to be following suit, according to Gwinnett County Medical Examiner's Office data.

Officials attribute the dip to proactive measures against gangs and illegal drug trafficking. The drug trade usually accounts for about half of Gwinnett's homicides.

"We strive to intercede as much as possible in drug transactions" to thwart drug-related slayings, said Gwinnett police spokesman Officer Brian Kelly.

Low as the 2009 number may sound, it still doubles the total homicides of 2001, the decade's low point at 18.

The homicide counts include murders as well as other killings that are not illegal, such as self-defense shootings. Homicides involving vehicle crashes and other deaths are left out.

But the sporadic nature of homicides, experts point out, means they're not always a reliable bellwether for local crime. And the recent decline in bloodshed could be linked to myriad factors.

"It's impossible for me to speculate as to why we've been seeing a downward trend," Kelly said. "We do seem to be mirroring the national average as far as homicide instances committed.

"It's our solve rate that has been outstanding."

As usual, Gwinnett police homicide detectives have handled or assisted in a vast majority -- 35 of 36 -- of killings this year, police said.

Of those, Kelly said, police have resolved 27 cases with arrest, notching the department's 2009 clearance rate at roughly 80 percent, the highest in five years.

The national average for homicide clearance in 2007, the most recent year with available data, was 61 percent, Kelly said.

The arrest figures represent suspects caught through homicide investigations and those who turned themselves in.

"Bottom line, we do a fantastic job of investigating and resolving the homicides occurring in Gwinnett," he said.

Through decades of residential boom, the homicide rate remained relatively constant in Gwinnett, until a sharp uptick came around 2000.

The steepest prolonged incline came between 2004 and 2007, when homicide totals shot from 32 to 50.

This year, homicides have tapered off toward year's end. It represents a slowdown since the summer months of June, July and August -- traditionally the high season for killings -- which averaged five homicides each this year.

The highest single monthly total from the last three years (7) came in February. Followed by one of only two months with zero homicides in the same time period.

Statistics like that, Kelly said, can speak to the unpredictable nature of deadly violence.

"Homicide is unlike any other crime," he said. "It's not something that police can be effectively pro-active against. Of course, there are elemental crimes that result in homicide that we strive to combat."

That being said, "there are a certain number of homicides ... that cannot be deterred with any conventional means," Kelly said. "Those will always exist."