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L.A. on track for fewest homicides since '67

LOS ANGELES — For the first time in more than four decades, Los Angeles is on track to end the year with fewer than 300 killings, a milestone in a steady decline of homicides that has changed the quality of life in many neighborhoods and defied predictions that a bad economy would inexorably lead to higher crime.

As of midafternoon on Sunday, the Los Angeles Police Department had tallied 291 homicides in 2010. The city is likely to record the fewest number of killings since 1967, when its population was almost 30 percent smaller.

Strikingly, homicides in the city have dropped by about one-third since 2007, the last full year before the economic downturn, according to a Los Angeles Times' analysis of coroner records. Throughout the rest of Los Angeles County, which is patrolled by the Sheriff's Department and individual cities' police departments, homicides during the same period tumbled by nearly 40 percent. The Times' analysis showed 159 homicides in areas patrolled by the Sheriff's Department and 164 in the rest of the county through mid-December.

The city's total translates into roughly 7.5 killings per 100,000 people and puts it in league with New York City and Phoenix as having among the lowest homicide rates among major U.S. cities.

"I never thought we'd see these numbers," said Sal LaBarbera, a veteran homicide detective with the LAPD.

Longer-term declines are even more notable. The city's homicide rate this year marks a 75 percent drop from 1992, when 1,092 people were killed during a crack cocaine epidemic and gang wars. Homicides investigated by the Sheriff's Department have dropped by more than half since the mid-1990s.

The change, experts say, is not easily explained and is probably the result of several factors working together, including effective crime-fighting strategies, strict sentencing laws, demographic shifts and sociological influences.

A significant factor, said Columbia University Law School Professor Jeffrey Fagan, is the absence of a drug epidemic in recent years.