The city is at risk of having a double-digit increase in its murder rate, troubling news for officials who have relied on favorable crime statistics that often defy national trends to tout New York as the safest big city in America.
The latest numbers obtained Friday by The Associated Press show homicides totaled 464 through Thursday, up 16 percent from the 400 reported at the same time last year. With seven weeks left in 2010, the total is only seven short of that for all of last year.
New York Police Department officials insist the numbers, though a concern, aren't overly alarming when put in the context of dramatic crime-fighting gains since 1990. The city had a record 2,245 homicides that year.
Even if the current pace holds, the department projects the year-end murder total would still be the third lowest since it started keeping comparable records in 1962. The lowest was last year at 471, followed by 496 in 2007.
"Things have generally been going in the right direction," Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said earlier this week. The longer-term decreases, he added, "indicate our effort and strategies are continuing to work."
One strategy the nation's largest police department has relied on in recent years: Assigning hundreds of rookie officers to neighborhoods where crime has crept up. Recent budget cuts have drastically reduced those recruit numbers and the overall size of the force, to roughly 34,800 officers from a high of more than 40,000 in 2002.
The department has compensated by extending the assignments of the new officers in trouble spots from six months to 18 months or more until the hiring restrictions ease, NYPD spokesman Paul Browne said Friday.
"It would make our lives easier to have the additional officers, but we can't attribute (the rise in homicides) strictly to the head count," he said.
Police say domestic violence, always difficult to combat, has resulted in 63 deaths in the city this year, up from 54 in 2009. And shootings have climbed 4.2 percent citywide.
But NYPD officials and experts agree there's no ready explanation for the jump in murders, even in a bad economy.
Andrew Karmen, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, noted Friday that amid the national financial meltdown and city budget crunch, the department still recorded significant drops in crime last year.
He suggested the latest homicide numbers reflect a fluctuation — not a re-emergence of the mayhem of old.
"This is not the first year there's been a spike or some backsliding," he said. "One bad year does not make a trend."
Officials also take comfort in the fact that reports of all serious crime, including assaults, robberies and rape, are down 1.3 percent so far this year.
"It's not an across-the-board increase," Karmen said. "If that happened, I think I'd be more alarmed."
Kelly said the department would continue to adjust resources to respond to any rise in killings.
"We operate on the premise that one murder is too many," he said.