WASHINGTON — The crack epidemic that began in the 1980s ushered in a wave of bloodletting in the nation’s capital and a death toll that ticked upward daily.

Dead bodies, sometimes several a night, had homicide detectives hustling between crime scenes and earned Washington unwelcome monikers such as the nation’s “murder capital.”

At the time, some feared the murder rate might ascend to more frightening heights.

But after approaching nearly 500 slayings a year in the early 1990s, the annual rate has gradually declined to the point that the city is now on the verge of a once-unthinkable milestone.

The number of 2012 killings in the District of Columbia was at 78 as of Friday and was on pace to finish lower than 100 for the first time since 1963, police records show.

“It strikes me probably daily as I ride around the city, or sometimes when I’m sitting at home at night, and it’s 10 o’clock and my phone’s not ringing,” said Police Chief Cathy Lanier, who joined the department amid violent 1991 street riots. “It strikes me quite often how different things are now.”

The drop reflects a downward trend in violent crime nationwide and is in line with declining homicides in other big cities. New York City officials said homicides dropped to 515 last year from 2,262 in 1990. Houston police reported 198 last year, down from 457 in 1985, while Los Angeles ended last year with fewer than 300 after nearly 1,100 in 1992.

Though D.C. is hardly crime-free today, and crime in some categories is even up, the homicide decline is especially notable in a place where grisly acts of violence — sometimes not far from the Capitol — embodied the worst of the crack scourge.

The number of homicides in this city of more than 600,000 residents averaged about 457 between 1989 and 1993, a staggering rate that attracted unwanted attention.

Everyone agrees there’s no single cause for the trend. One factor is the city’s continued gentrification — the 2011 median household income of $63,124 is higher than all but four states, census figures show. City blocks have been refashioned, drug dens razed, a Major League Baseball stadium built in place of urban blight, high-rise public housing replaced by less-dense garden style apartments.

The homicide drop is good news for residents such as John Harper, who said his street in the historically violent Anacostia neighborhood feels far safer than it did 10 years ago. Still, a fatal shooting last July on his block returned his thoughts to the night in 1999 when his own son was killed in an alley.

“I didn’t even want to look over there because it just takes me right back to that day,” he said. “A lot of it is starting to come to an end, that behavior is starting to just leave this city — hopefully for good.”