New Haven’s murder count reached a 20-year high last year after a grisly 2011 that saw 34 homicides.

Although city and police officials admitted the homicide rate — 10 higher than the 2010 figure — was concerning, they pointed to improvements in the city’s overall rate of violent crime in recent years as an indication of continued policing efforts. Officials and community leaders agreed that there is no simple explanation for the Elm City’s uptick in murders, but several new strategies have been implemented to bring the rate down in the future, coinciding with the arrival of new New Haven Police Department chief Dean Esserman, who was sworn in Nov. 18.

“The homicide rate in 2011 was clearly unacceptable and it’s something that the city and the police department are going to focus efforts on in 2012,” said City Hall spokeswoman Elizabeth Benton ’04. “The new chief has been tasked with reducing the homicide rate and the rate of violent crime in the city and we’re optimistic that his efforts will be successful.”

The Elm City reached its final murder count for the year after two fatal shootings in as many days. NHPD officers responded to a report of a shooting at 50 Houston St. around 12:50 a.m. on Dec. 23. There, they found 27-year old Joseph Zargo of West Haven with a gunshot wound to the chest. He was taken to Yale-New Haven Hospital and pronounced dead shortly afterward.

The next day, the city’s Shotspotter system reported several gunshots at 332 Norton St. around 9:45 p.m. Officers at the scene found Antonio Holloway, 19, with a gunshot wound to the chest outside 335 Norton St. Holloway was taken to St. Raphael’s Hospital and pronounced dead at 3:51 a.m Christmas Day.

While NHPD spokesman David Hartman agreed that the number of murders in the city last year was unacceptably high, he said the homicide count was simply “the most visible figure” and not necessarily reflective of the city’s overall crime situation.

According to data released Dec. 20 by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Elm City saw an 11 percent drop in violent crime in the first six months of 2011 compared with the same period in 2010.

That data, from the FBI’s preliminary analysis of nationwide crime statistics from Jan. 1 to June 30, counted homicides, rapes, robberies and aggravated assaults as violent crimes. In New Haven, the number of robberies rose from 338 to 350, the number of rapes dropped from 30 to 25 and aggravated assault cases fell from 585 to 460. Property crime in the city also fell 11 percent.

Hartman explained that the data, which follows a 9 percent drop in total violent crime between 2009 and 2010, suggested that homicides do not accurately represent the city’s overall picture of crime. He added that past homicide records have not reflected the number of people killed, but rather the number of homicide investigations launched. In December, the NHPD went through its records for the past 30 years and recalculated homicide statistics to represent the actual number of murder victims. While the NHPD website shows 34 homicides in 1991 ­— the previous peak in homicides — Hartman explained that this figure reflects 34 investigations into incidents that year in which a total of 36 people were murdered.

The causes of violent crime in today’s New Haven — which include economic hardship, lack of education and a revolving prison population — are different from the gang-related violence that took place in the early 1990s, said Richard Epstein, the chairman of the Board of Police Commissioners.

Gerald Antunes, who until this year served as Ward 12 alderman and vice-chair of the city’s public safety committee, and Donald Morris, head of the Brotherhood Leadership Summit, local anti-violence group, agreed that these violent crimes can only be combated with a holistic, community-focused approach.

Antunes said Esserman is spearheading these efforts, which involve putting cops back on walking beats in local neighborhoods and interacting with the community to obtain information to prevent crimes.

Despite the city’s renewed efforts to fight violent crime, Yale administrators have sought to reassure those in the University community of the city’s saftey.

University President Richard Levin noted that many of last year’s murders were drug related or had to do with the city’s youth gangs, and did not necessarily threaten the general population. Still, that is only “small comfort,” he admitted, given the homicides took place in local neighborhoods.

“There are many aspects of life in New Haven that are far improved from 20 years ago,” said Levin, who took office in 1993. “Downtown is notably safe; there’s far more people living in the downtown area overnight.”

Both Levin and Yale Police Chief Ronnell Higgins stressed Yale’s partnership with the city in fighting crime. The YPD “will always be the NHPD’s strongest partner,” Higgins said.

The new year has opened with a spate of shootings. Four people were shot late Saturday and early Sunday, three of whom suffered non-life threatening wounds and the other of which remains in a serious condition at Yale-New Haven Hospital.