While New York and Chicago saw an uptick in slayings last year, other cities including Detroit, Cleveland, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Los Angeles had fewer violent deaths in '08 than '07.
And though a study released Monday by Northeastern University showed black teenagers killing each other in rising numbers, Milwaukee stands out. The number of black men between the ages of 15 and 29 killed dropped nearly two-thirds, from 54 in 2007 to 19 last year.
Total homicides dropped 32 percent, from 105 in 2007 to 71 last year - the lowest number since 1985. The city also saw fewer gun deaths.
"I think today Milwaukee is allowed to feel good about itself because this reduction is the work of many people. ... This year they saw a return on their investment," Police Chief Edward Flynn told a news conference Friday.
Milwaukee police union president John Balcerzak said Flynn's ideas are contributing to the declines in crime. He pointed to creation of a neighborhood task force, the assignment of 57 new police officers to foot patrols across the city and use of limited duty officers to handle lower priority complaints by phone as improvements.
"I think he's brought a lot of pleasant surprises to the city of Milwaukee that are helping," Balcerzak said.
While the nation's preliminary crime statistics won't be released by the FBI until spring, a review of unofficial figures released by 25 of the 52 police departments in cities with a population of over 350,000 showed 15 of the 25 had fewer slayings last year than in '07.
Detroit had 344 slayings, a 13 percent drop from the 396 in 2007; Philadelphia's 332 killings were a 15 percent drop from the 392 in 2007; and the 234 homicides in Baltimore were 17 percent less than the 282 the year before.
Cleveland recorded 102 homicides in 2008, down from a 13-year high of 134 in 2007, but Mayor Franklin Jackson wasn't celebrating the 24 percent drop.
"We're very disappointed," Jackson said. "If one person gets killed, it's a problem. These are not just statistics. Somebody cared about these people."
In the nation's biggest cities, homicides in New York rose 5.2 percent, to 522 from 496 the year before, while slayings in Los Angeles were down - 376 in 2008 compared to 400 the prior year.
Homicides in Los Angeles have plunged 27 percent during the past five years, which police officials attributed to a reduction of gang-related crime.
"We have shown time and again that if you invest in law enforcement and hold police accountable ... you will absolutely have a very definitive effect on crime," said Los Angeles Assistant Police Chief Earl Paysinger.
Houston, Minneapolis, Jacksonville, Fla., Boston, San Jose, Calif., San Francisco, Oakland, Calif., Tulsa, Okla., also all had fewer slayings last year than the year before. Chicago, Columbus, Ohio, Washington, D.C., Tucson, Ariz., Kansas City, Mo., St. Louis, Indianapolis, Seattle and Charlotte, N.C., had more killing.
In the 25 cities there were a combined 4,291 slayings in 2008, an overall 2.7 percent drop from the 4,409 recorded in 2007. Data was not reviewed for another 27 cities classified by the Census Bureau as having a 2007 population of over 350,000, however.
Preliminary data in Chicago showed 508 homicides were reported in 2008, the first time the city had more than 500 murders since 2003 and about 15 percent more than the 442 homicides reported in 2007.
St. Louis ended the year with 167 homicides, the highest number since 204 people were killed in 1995. Kansas City had 126 slayings, just one shy of the 127 in 2005 - the most for any year this decade. Columbus recorded 108 homicides, up 37 percent from the 79 recorded the previous year.
"This is a bad year," Columbus police Cmdr. Richard Bash said. "It's extremely serious, in all honesty. We have a lot of victims and victims' families that are devastated."
Columbus police attributed the jump in killings to a rise in gang violence. However, they also said the 2007 homicide rate was atypically low, making the 2008 number look all the more grim.
Washington, D.C., ended 2008 with 186 homicides, up from 181 in 2007.
Among smaller cities, troubled Gary, Ind., recorded 51 homicides during 2008 - down 28 percent from the 71 recorded during 2007, but still one of the highest rates by population in the country.
There were 55 homicide victims in Camden, N.J., one of the deadliest years ever in the city that regularly ranks among the nation's most crime-ridden. But homicides in Newark, N.J., fell to 67 - an eight-year low.
New Orleans saw 179 murders, a 15 percent drop from the 210 in 2007. While the city's shifting population has been hard to measure, even the largest estimates would still mean the Crescent City is among the nation's most homicidal places per-capita.
"We need to redouble our efforts to do everything in our power ... to reduce crime," said Rafael Goyeneche, president of the watchdog Metropolitan Crime Commission, noting that responsibility falls on citizens, public officials and other parts of the criminal justice community, not just the police.
Police Superintendent Warren Riley said the department is bolstering police presence in 11 so-called "hot spots," more quickly clearing major drug and homicide cases and improving its standing in the community. It's a safer city than it was a year and two ago, he said.
"Have we reduced crime to the level that we can say it is absolutely a turnaround? No," Riley said. "But have we made reasonable progress? Yes."