While overall crime is down 7 percent from last year, the rate of non-fatal shootings is at the highest point in years, New Haven city officials announced Tuesday.

The city’s greatest drop in crime was in non-firearm violent crime, down 10 percent from last year, Mayor John DeStefano, Jr. said at a press conference yesterday. But DeStefano said shootings were at an “intolerable” level, especially in minority neighborhoods. DeStefano and New Haven Police Department Chief Francisco Ortiz said they hope to reduce the number of shootings in New Haven by strengthening community outreach programs and increasing police presence throughout the city.

Ortiz said reducing incidents of shootings in the coming months is a top priority for the NHPD.

“There are too many shootings and they are unacceptable,” he said. “We have to take ownership of the problem.”

According to the New Haven Public Safety report released yesterday, there have been 139 non-fatal shooting victims this year to date, compared to 92 in 2006 and 87 in 2005.

DeStefano and Ortiz each offered a number of possible reasons why shootings increased this year, even as other crimes decreased.

DeStefano said that the increase stems from the state’s and community’s inadequate handling of convicted felons that have been released back into the community. Fifty-five percent of non-fatal shooting victims this year had a criminal history. But people with criminal records accounted for only 37 percent of shooting victims in 2006.

He said the state needs to do a better job evaluating who is fit to be released into the community.

“I appreciate the point about second chances but what I’m worried about is protecting the members of my community,” DeStefano said.

Criminals who are released from prison, he said, should have more resources available to them to help them better integrate into society.

Ortiz said the availability of guns in the community and the country in general are also a cause of the violence. He said the consequences for possessing a firearm without a permit are not strong enough.

“Being caught carrying a firearm with out a permit is a joke,” he said. “I feel powerless. I have no power over gun control in my community. There are so many opportunities to be exploited.”

Ortiz said this year, the NHPD took a step in the right direction by ordering that guns be reported as stolen within 72 hours and by confiscating 182 guns, which is comparable to last year, according to the report.

But all other non-violent and violent crimes have dropped at least 3 percent since this time last year with the exception of motor vehicle theft, which has increased most notably in the last two months, according to the report. Homicides dropped 39 percent and rape 21 percent.

Ortiz said much of this success is due to the NHPD’s use of community policing, a program in which officers work with a single specific community. Since its adoption in 1990, crime rates have been reduced by over 60 percent, Ortiz said.

“It is about decentralizing resources, empowering officers, working with the community to prioritize problems and [solving] them together,” Ortiz said.

Ortiz said programs such as the Street Outreach Workers, which works to mediate community disputes, and organizations that engage youth in public schools have also helped reduce crime rates.

But Ortiz has recently faced criticism from some community activists, who have said he has allowed community policing to weaken in recent years.

In its recent review of the NHPD, the Police Executive Research Forum reflected these concerns by calling for a renewed focus on community policing.

Ortiz said the NHPD hopes to further reduce crime and eventually spending as well by adding a new batch of police recruits to be selected in spring 2008. This year, 919 applications to the NHPD were sent in, more than double last year’s number. The NHPD hopes to choose two rounds of 45 individuals to be trained for service.

Until the first group of new officers arrive in spring 2008, Ortiz said he will be working to reassign officers currently working on special task forces to neighborhood patrols, where he said they will be effective in limiting the incidence of violence.