Last year, suburban communities in Alle-gheny County hit a gruesome benchmark.
County police logged 45 homicides, just two more than 2007, but the highest in the department's history. That number may rise to 47 after investigations are complete.
That rise was accompanied by an increase in Pittsburgh, which had 79 homicides, four short of its 1993 record.
There were no dramatic rises in individual communities, and according to Alfred Blumstein, a criminologist at Carnegie Mellon University, the number represents a normal fluctuation.
Still, it's hard to ignore.
"I think it's a concern to every-body," said Robinson Police Chief Dale Vietmeier, president of the Allegheny County Chiefs of Police Association.
He had been unaware of the record and his township had no homicides last year.
"It's not me personally, but sure, it affects everybody."
The majority of the suburban homicides occurred in communities east and south of Pittsburgh. Penn Hills had the most, six.
Wilkinsburg, with four last year, may have already had its first homicide of 2009. On Tuesday evening, the body of Aljermire Dewberry was found in the passenger seat of a car that was on fire.
Last year, Wilkinsburg was the site of two homicides that galvanized the community.
Kia Johnson, 18, was nearly nine months pregnant when police said Andrea Demus-Curry, 38, lured the teenager to her Wilkinsburg apartment, then bound her and sliced the baby from her womb.
Ms. Demus-Curry brought the baby to a local hospital, claiming it was her own.
The brutality of the case garnered national media attention, and led to scrutiny of Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, where Ms. Curry-Demus, who had a lengthy history of mental illness, was once a patient.
On April 18, 12-year-old Kholen Germany was killed after running into the Head 2 Toe clothing store to take shelter from a man shooting from across the street. Police said the man who fired the fatal shot, Kevin Johnson, had mistaken Kholen for a man who was shooting at him from the same side as the store.
More than 200 mourners packed a small church in Wilkinsburg to remember the boy, who had endeared himself to local store owners by running errands for them. Kholen also was known in the neighborhood for excelling in school.
The nature of the suburban homicides differed -- some were domestic, some arose from fights that got overheated, and one is believed to be over a cell phone. There was no singular explanation for the rise.
But Lt. William Palmer, of the Allegheny County Homicide Unit, said the No. 1 cause of homicides in outlying communities in 2008 was drugs. At least half of the homicides his detectives handled had drug connections.
Lt. Palmer said homicides often result from armed robberies that turn lethal. Sometimes, they were retaliation for drug deals gone bad or ripoffs.
Part of the challenge of addressing the widespread drug problem in outlying communities is they span municipal borders. Allegheny County has more than 100 suburban police departments, some of which have as few as three full-time officers.
Richard Garland, of One Vision One Life, a county anti-violence initiative, said drug dealers are taking advantage of smaller police departments and communities that have fewer resources for law enforcement.
"Right now, I've seen guys move from community to community, where they used to stay put," he said. "[Local police] are not equipped to handle this problem, which is why guys ... go to places where there are only three [full-time] police officers and the rest are part-time."
One way the county addresses systemic crime issues -- such as gang and crime networks -- is through task forces that employ law enforcement at many levels. Local, county and sometimes even federal agencies take part.
The task forces seem to be effective. In October, a task force of 250 agents from local, state, county and federal agencies arrested 31 people involved in a number of overlapping violent drug networks in the eastern suburbs. Those 31, plus an additional 20 connected with the networks, were indicted in federal court on a variety of charges.
The Allegheny County District Attorney's office said some of the suspects indicted had connections to a dozen homicides.
Still, McKeesport Chief Joseph Pero said the system isn't perfect and could always be improved. He has four narcotics officers who work with a countywide task force called the District Attorney's Narcotics Enforcement Team. On many occasions, county police have come into the city to target neighborhoods with a spike in gun violence.
"They try to take a proactive approach, hitting hot spots," he said. "They'll come in and give us additional manpower."
But municipalities all have different record-keeping systems, and Chief Pero said if there were just one system, it might be easier to keep track of suspected drug dealers.
"We may have to reach out to another 'muni' if this guy who's selling drugs in our community lives in their community," he said. "If there was one sole data base, that would help out a lot."
Mr. Garland said law enforcement has limited utility, though, and called on the "community to step up big time."
"It ain't law enforcement's job, it's our job."
Moriah Balingit can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-2533.