Baltimore may lose a No. 1 ranking, and city officials have no problem relinquishing the title.
Detroit police said Thursday that their 2008 homicide total reported by the FBI this week was incorrect, an error that had given Baltimore the distinction of being the most murderous large city in the country.
Rod Liggons, a Detroit police spokesman, said the city in January reported 339 homicides to the state of Michigan, which submits figures to the federal government. But the number that the FBI distributed this week as part of its annual crime report was 306, a difference of more than 11 percent. Liggons told The Baltimore Sun that the FBI figure is wrong.
"Three-thirty-nine is our actual number," Liggons said.
The Criminal Justice Information Services, which compiles the numbers for the FBI, did not immediately respond to questions about the disparity.
If acknowledged by the FBI, the difference of 33 killings would be just enough to push Detroit's homicide rate past Baltimore's to reclaim the No. 1 ranking among cities with a population of 500,000 or more people. Baltimore's rate was 36.9 killings per 100,000 people; Detroit's would be 37.4 per 100,000.
While the top ranking carries a stigma that Baltimore is certainly happy to shed, officials stopped short of cheering.
"Whether the city is 1 or 2 or 102, these rankings don't reflect the significant decrease in crime last year compared to recent prior years," said Scott Peterson, a spokesman for Mayor Sheila Dixon.
Earlier this week, Dixon said that "even one homicide is too many," and pledged to work to sustain the reduction.
"This city is safer than it has been in decades, and it is the highest priority of this administration that this trend will continue," Peterson said.
Pointing to statistics that show gun crimes are down, police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said, "There's less people walking around Baltimore with guns, and that's what counts."
Both cities experienced record drops in homicides. Baltimore's 234 homicides were down from 282 the year before, the lowest figure in 20 years. Even with its total adjusted upward, Detroit saw its lowest number of homicides since 1967. The cities' populations have dropped sharply.
But with killings down across the country for the second straight year, Baltimore and Detroit found themselves unable to shake their long-standing place at the top of the violence rankings.
Homicides are up about 15 percent this year in Baltimore.
The FBI cautions against using the numbers to rank cities, and this week shows why: In addition to the discrepancies in Detroit, officials in New Orleans, which easily ranks No. 1 in homicides among cities with 100,000 or more people, said the FBI inflated its crime rates by using a too-low population figure.
Still, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported that regardless of the population estimate, that city remained the most murderous by a wide margin.
Among cities larger than 100,000 people, Baltimore would now rank fourth in homicide rate, behind New Orleans, St. Louis, and Detroit.
The Detroit Police Department's disclosure came the same day that Wayne County (Mich.) Prosecutor Kym Worthy said in a Detroit Free Press article that the city's homicide total is well over 400. She declined to say how she arrived at that figure, but said that Detroit has "resource problems, and in order to adequately allocate our resources, I need to have an accurate depiction of the crime occurring in the city."
Liggons told The Baltimore Sun that Detroit detectives investigated 430 deaths in 2008 and omitted those determined to be suicides, accidental deaths or justifiable homicides such as self-defense. Most cities, including Baltimore, do not include such deaths in their totals.
Worthy told the Free Press that "the only way we can solve our crime problem is to face our numbers, face reality and deal with it honestly," she said.
Skeptics believe homicides are underreported in Baltimore, too, pointing to a large number of undetermined deaths.
State Medical Examiner David Fowler told The Baltimore Sun last fall that his office rules uses the "undetermined" label for nearly all drug-related deaths, while all but two other states consider such deaths accidental, because his definition differs from that of medical examiners in most other states.
2008 homicide rates for cities with populations 500,000 and up, according to FBI data (per 100,000)
Rates according to corrected Detroit police figures: