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Detroit — The criminal homicide tally in Michigan's largest city has dropped for the second consecutive year with 261 deaths in 2018, Detroit Police Chief James Craig confirmed Tuesday.

If it holds up under review, the number would be the lowest on record in more than 50 years; in 1966, there were 214 homicides.

That, however, was at a time when Detroit had a population of more than 1.5 million people — a rate of about 14 homicides per 100,000 residents.

The 261 homicides in 2018, compared to Detroit's most recent estimated population of about 673,000 as of July, is a rate of about 39 per 100,000 residents.

"I wish they were going down more," Craig said. "I'm not flying the flag of success yet."

Craig, in an interview with The Detroit News on Tuesday, said he's happy that homicides have "continually trended down." 

"We still per capita have more incidents, but we're moving in the right direction," he added. "We are exceeding the expectation that I have set. However, I'm also conscious that we still have work to do."

The tally for 2018 would represent a 2 percent drop from the 267 recorded homicides in 2017. In 2016, there were 305 homicides in Detroit.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan on Tuesday deferred comment on the latest homicide figures to Craig. 

Later this week, law enforcement will discuss this year's official data at a press conference, police said.

Only five times since 1966 has Detroit finished a year with less than 300 homicides: 1966, 1967 (the year of the uprising), 2015, 2017 and 2018. In 1968, the total shot up more than 100, from 281 in 1967 to 389. At its height, the homicide rate reached 714 deaths in 1974.

Craig said trends are showing a reduction in gang and group violence. He credited much of that success to Operation Ceasefire, a program in which police partnered with the U.S. Attorney’s Office and Wayne County prosecutors to identify gang members and others who are likely to commit crimes or be victims. Some are connected to educational and job opportunities.

The program began on the east and west sides of the city, but Craig said he anticipates all precincts will be involved in the program by the end of the first quarter of 2019.

"We believe in it," he said. "Other places have adopted it, but we think ours is different. The person who developed the concept met with the mayor and us a few weeks ago. ... He thinks that Detroit has one of the more robust ceasefire programs of any major city."

That shows, Craig said, in the decreasing number of random acts of violence and nonfatal shootings, which he said fell by 10 percent from 840 in 2017 to 755 in 2018.

Clearance and closure rates also have improved, he said, especially in the fourth precinct in southwest Detroit and the sixth precinct on the west side. Work to improve transparency through the Neighborhood Police Initiative, Craig said, benefits the department's relationship with the community.

"We have a community who trusts us and will work with the police department if there is a violent crime committed," he said. "Those partnerships, that transparency, goes a long way in helping us solve violent crime."

But Willie Bell, chairman of Detroit’s Board of Police Commissioners, said the board remains concerned over the city’s closure rate.

“There are too many incidents where we have families on TV that are asking for closure and some of these are long standing,” he said. “So, it’s sort of difficult to celebrate (the decline in homicides) with this happening in the city of Detroit.”

Bell added he was “surprised” that homicides have dropped. The city, he said, continues to endure so many, sometimes even multiple homicides in a single weekend.

Additionally, the city saw 335 fewer robberies in 2018, a 13 percent reduction, Craig said.

The city's Project Green Light began in January 2016 with high-quality video surveillance cameras at eight Detroit locations and has since exploded to include nearly 500, up from 232 at the end of 2017.

The project's cameras located at gas stations, liquor stores and other businesses are monitored by officers and civilians in the police department’s Real Time Crime Center. Craig said police use them for virtual neighborhood patrols.

After a number of robberies were reported along the Woodward corridor earlier in 2018, analysts were scanning the location and found a robbery and shooting in progress. They notified officers, who made it to the scene in time to apprehend the suspect.

Craig said new locations that participate in Project Green Light see reductions in crime almost immediately and that the department plans to continue to expand the program in 2019.

Although violent crime was down 2 percent, Craig said, rape cases jumped, a trend the chief said the department is investigating.

Mental illness also continues to be one of the greatest challenges to fighting violent crime, he said, as many do not receive necessary treatment.

"It's a concern," Craig said, "and continues to be a concern unless we figure out a way that addresses the issue."

Other major cities also were reporting decreases in murders for the year.

Preliminary figures show there were 561 homicides in Chicago, the nation's third largest city, through Dec. 18, according to the Associated Press. That's down 15 percent from 660 in 2017, though it is still greater than the next two largest cities combined.

As of about mid-December, New York had 278 homicides, three fewer than the previous year at that time. The Los Angeles Times reported its hometown had 256 crimes reported as of Dec. 27, a 9 percent decrease.

bnoble@detroitnews.com

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