After rising nearly 40% earlier this year, killings in the city of Los Angeles have fallen below last year's levels, according to LAPD statistics.
The Police Department said there were 204 killings in 2008 as of Monday evening, four fewer than were reported over the same period last year. That represented a 2% decline overall, Sgt. Ruby Malachi said.
Officials were quick to point out that the percentage drop was so small that a few more homicides this week could push the total number over 2007 levels.
Still, they said the statistics represented a shift from mid-March, when Los Angeles seemed poised to see a major increase in killings after five years of historic declines.
"We see fluctuations throughout the year, and sometimes those spikes we see are very disturbing," said LAPD Assistant Chief Earl Paysinger.
"But at the end of the day, we still see a marked degradation in crime. And that's the goal."
He noted that the numbers had declined significantly during the summer, typically the busiest period of the year for crime.
UC Irvine professor George Tita said that despite the increase in killings earlier in the year, the LAPD was not facing a fundamental change in the pattern of violence in the city.
"You can't extrapolate a trend from looking at a day, a week or even a month," Tita said. "Fortunately homicides are rare events; they are not uniformly distributed across time. You are going to get clumps of incidents. When you are in the middle of one of those clumps, there is a temptation to say there's something to it. In fact, it's just a clump unrelated to other events in the time series."
Overall, violent crime this year was down 7% as of July 12, according to the LAPD. The number of shots fired was down 28%, as was the number of victims hit by gunfire -- from 1041 to 874, a decline of 16% for the same time period.
About half of the LAPD's 19 divisions saw slight increases in homicides this year: the Devonshire, Foothill, North Hollywood and West Valley areas in the San Fernando Valley; the Hollywood, Pacific and Wilshire divisions on the Westside; the Northeast and Rampart in Central L.A.; and the Southeast Division in South Los Angeles.
Among the divisions that have seen declines: Newton, Southwest, 77th Street, Van Nuys, Hollenbeck and Mission.
Police struggled earlier this year to contain gang clashes in Watts and northeast Los Angeles, including a rash of slayings linked to the Avenues gang. In one incident, a 37-year-old man was fatally shot more than a dozen times by suspected gang members as he held the hand of a 2-year-old girl, who was picked up by a passerby and carried to safety.
The drive-by attack was followed by a wild shootout between gang members, and police shut down dozens of blocks in the area. One gang member was fatally wounded by police.
There was also a string of high-profile slayings. SWAT Officer Randal Simmons was killed in February by a San Fernando Valley gunman who already had killed three members of his own family. He was the first member of the city's elite Special Weapons and Tactics unit to be killed in the line of duty since it was created nearly 40 years ago.
In March, high school athlete Jamiel Shaw II was gunned down, allegedly by a gang member who was in the country illegally.
The spike in homicides earlier this year was met with some alarm because for nearly five years, LAPD Chief William J. Bratton had presided over a precipitous decline in the number of homicides.
Last year, the homicide rate was the lowest in four decades.