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Homicides fall in '08
20 percent decline linked to gang, drug initiatives

LAWRENCEVILLE - Within the economic holocaust of 2008 lies one cutback Gwinnett officials can be giddy about - a steep decline in homicides.

On the heels of a historically violent 2007 - back when Gwinnett police agencies worked, on average, about one killing per week - last year proved a relative respite from bloodshed.

Data released this week show the tally of 2008 homicides in Gwinnett (38) fell more than 20 percent from the record (50) set a year prior.

And it's the first time since 2004 the county has seen a decrease in killings between consecutive years, according to the Gwinnett County Medical Examiner's Office.

So what bucked the trend?

Danny Porter, Gwinnett District Attorney, attributes the dip in killings to efforts by federal and local authorities to derail drug trafficking in Gwinnett. The drug trade usually accounts for about half of homicides, he said.

Also affecting statistics were initiatives aimed at thwarting gangs, such as the 30-member gang task force launched by Gwinnett police in March, Porter said. The other prominent category, domestic homicides, remained relatively constant in 2008, he said.

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 Porter warned that the sporadic nature of homicides can sometimes degrade their value as a bellwether for local crime.

"Murder is really the least preventable crime," he said. "What we really have to look at is the violent crime rate."

Year-end numbers show a moderate decline in total cases referred to Porter's office for prosecution, an indication violent crimes are trending downward, he said.

As is typical, Gwinnett police worked the vast majority (34) of the county's 38 homicides last year, at total that was down 19 percent from 2007. Cpl. David Schiralli, Gwinnett police spokesman, said 10 of those crimes remain unsolved.

The remaining killings occurred in jurisdictions of Norcross and Lawrenceville police.

As homicide rates had perennially climbed, officials blamed the spike on the county's exponential growth. But through decades of residential boom, the homicide rate remained relatively constant, until a sharp uptick came around the year 2000.

The low point for homicides this decade (18) came in 2001.

Figures released by Gwinnett police Friday show a percentage decrease in nearly all major crime categories - such as robbery (down 3 percent) and aggravated assault (9) - against the previous year.

Officials also noted a 19 percent drop in vehicle break-ins and an 18 percent drop in automobile thefts last year.

Not all trends pointed downward, but that wasn't necessarily a bad thing.

Though residential burglaries climbed 9 percent - a figure police are addressing in 2009 with revised tactics, leaders say - break-ins at businesses dropped by 12 percent, the data show.

And then there were gang stats.

With the advent of the gang task force, combined with a heightened community awareness, reports of gang-related incidents surged by 29,000 percent last year, according to police figures compiled in October.

Gwinnett police Chief Charles Walters attributes the statistical successes to collaborations between residents and police and specialized units built to hone in on specific crimes.

"For 2009," Walters said in a prepared statement, "we will work harder to provide even better safety and protection."