The beginning of 2008 looked to be another bloody start for North Charleston, with at least four homicides coming in the first few weeks of the year.

Then, the numbers slowed. Dramatically.

When the year closed out, North Charleston experienced a significant drop in this most violent crime, ending 2008 with 14 homicides — far below the 26 reported in 2007.

The city's police chief credited the decline on a number of strategies, including City Council budgeting for nearly three-dozen new officers, the increased involvement of clergy and mothers of crime victims and a saturation of police in shooting zones to head off retaliations.

"We were having a presence there seven days a week," Police Chief Jon Zumalt said Wednesday.

North Charleston isn't alone in registering a decline. Overall, the Charleston region experienced a general drop in homicides last year, with an estimated 52 recorded in Charleston, Berkeley and Dorchester counties. That's well off of the more than 70 seen in 2007.

The reasons behind the dip varies: Better policing, a decline in statistics nationally and a greater efficiency in transporting gunshot victims to hospitals, to name a few. Still, who is getting caught up in Lowcountry homicides remained largely the same: those pulled into retaliatory street crime or victims of domestic homicides in which intimate partners or family members turn on each other.

"Young black men killing other black men. That's the bulk of our homicides," College of Charleston sociologist Heath Hoffmann said. He used the phrase "intra-racial crime" to describe the street murder trend. Very few of the area's homicides involve acts by strangers or predators, he said.

The city of Charleston's homicide rate stayed much the same as the previous year, recording about 14 in 2008, compared with 15 in 2007. The homicide rates in most other local Charleston-area jurisdictions also were consistent or registered no significant spikes.

In interviews this week, the police chiefs of the Charleston area's two largest municipalities both credited saturating areas after shooting crimes and increased civilian community cooperation as profitable strategies in preventing retaliation gunplay. But Zumalt and Charleston Chief Greg Mullen said there was much more that could be done, including action from the Legislature and judges to head off the revolving door of crime. That includes cracking down on bonds, parole and probations, specifically for repeat violent offenders.

"A lot of these crimes are committed by the same people," Mullen said. A huge problem, he added, is that for young people, "violence is something they are accepting, which is not a good thing for society as a whole."

The Charleston-area murder issues reflect those seen nationally. A national study of homicide trends released by Northeastern University this week showed rates involving young black males with guns surged dramatically between 2000 and 2007.

Between 2002 and 2007, the study found that the number of juvenile black male homicide victims grew by 31 percent and juvenile black male perpetrators by 43 percent.

What 2009 will bring is unclear. One potential trend could be an increase in domestic homicides, especially if incidents of household financial stress gets worse and the economy continues to sour, experts say.

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551 or skropf@postandcourier.com.