NEW YORK — More New Yorkers are out of work, and the cash-strapped city isn't graduating a new class of police cadets this year. And yet crime is going down – way down.
The city is heading toward its lowest number of murders in almost 50 years, and overall crime is also down, the New York Police Department said Friday.
The NYPD projects about 457 murders this year, the lowest total since the department started keeping records in 1962.
And, overall crime is down nearly 12 percent from 2008, and 40 percent since 2001, the NYPD said.
The downward trend is mystifying criminologists who say crime usually rises when times are tough.
"I don't have an answer to it," said Andrew Karmen, a renowned criminologist at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. "The poor and the unemployed are not fed up, or in despair. They still retain hope that the economy will turn."
The nation's largest police department will continue to work diligently to combat crime, Commissioner Raymond Kelly said this week.
"I'm often asked how low can crime go, and my answer is always the same: One crime is one too many," he said.
The city had about six murders on average per 100,000 people last year, a rate among the lowest in the U.S., according to FBI crime statistics. In 2008, New Orleans had 64, St. Louis 47 and Los Angeles 10 per 100,000 people, according to the FBI.
There is still room for New York's rate to decline, compared to London, where there are two murders per 100,000 people, and Tokyo, where there's one.
Criminologists consider the murder rate as a benchmark to forecast the overall crime rate. But they also say the annual comparisons don't always reflect long-term trends and can be skewed by unusual events, like the Happy Land social club arson in the Bronx, which killed 87 people in 1990.
But there are many reasons the crime rate could be low right now, including a large population of baby boomers (older people don't commit as much crime), different styles of policing and more suspects being held in jails.
Karmen said poverty and unemployment are normally key factors in determining whether crimes will rise and fall; the city's unemployment rate in September is its highest in 16 years.
During the downturn of the 1970s and '80s, New York was considered dangerous and run down. The city's homicide rate reached a high of 2,245 in 1990, tops in the nation. But crime has steadily decreased since then, and in 2007 the city had its fewest murders since comparable record-keeping began in the 1960s.
As of Friday, New York City police reported 325 murders. If that rate continues through the end of the year, the total will beat the previous low of 497 murders, in 2007.
John Alan Fox, a criminologist and criminal justice professor at Northeastern University in Boston, said the problem with the crime stats is that they pull together all segments of the population. While crime is down overall, there's a divergent pattern between the rich and the poor. Violence continues to be a problem for the poor and minorities, he said.
"It's important we don't get complacent," he said. "Crime is the lowest it's been in decades, but we need also to not lose sight that there are areas where crime rates are just too high, where the sound of gunfire is an every night event."
Some New York City residents didn't quite believe the falling numbers. Katrina Ballard said that she doesn't feel safer.
"At certain times I don't go to the stores," said the 22-year-old Ballard, who lives in Brooklyn. "Once it gets around 8:30 or 9 o'clock, I don't leave. I make sure I have everything I need so that I don't go to the store after that."
She said that gun violence is common in her neighborhood and that police seem to respond to shootings 30 to 40 minutes after an incident.
In the past year, because of massive budget problems, Mayor Michael Bloomberg canceled a class of police academy cadets and reduced the cap on officers citywide. There are more than 30,000 officers.
But Kelly said the department is working smarter and credits some of the same programs that have kept the crime rate declining for years. That includes placing most graduating police officers in higher-crime areas and the department's Real Time Crime Center, an $11 million program launched about four years ago that relies on tips from pedestrians and uses satellite imaging and computerized mapping systems to identify geographic patterns of crimes.
Violence used to occur in a wider area of New York, but is now mostly confined to the poorest neighborhoods, criminologists said. And most of the murder victims are young men, from poor neighborhoods and dysfunctional families who are unemployed and forced to attend failing schools that turn them off to education – problems that can't be solved with police strategies, criminologists say.
"How low can you go? There is a certain bottom, but until you tackle these root causes and go beyond them, you won't reach it," said Karmen, author of "New York Murder Mystery: The True Story Behind the Crime Crash of the 1990s."
Still, police have made headway reducing crime in the city's poorest neighborhoods, Kelly said.
"We take pride that, in many respects, the greatest beneficiaries of this crime decline have been the city's poorest citizens," he said.
But the city's clearance rate – the number of homicides solved in a year, compared with the number of killings committed that year – stands at 70 percent, the same as 15 years ago.
Chief NYPD spokesman Paul J. Browne said the city's clearance rate is among the best in the country, higher than the national average.
But it's no comfort for victims' families and can be confusing to civilians, Karmen said.
"Police are solving fewer murders percentage wise and yet they want credit for the drop in murders," Karmen said. "It's confusing and troubling. Police are saying, 'Give us credit for bringing down the murder rate,' but they're less able to solve murders than in the 1990s."
Associated Press writer Cristian Salazar contributed to this report.