So far this year 56 people have been slain in the city, a 40 percent increase over the first two months of 2010.

The year's homicide tally is the highest by this point of the year since 2007, when Mayor Nutter campaigned on a promise to halve the murder rate within five to seven years.

Compared with 2007, a particularly bad year with 392 slayings, the tally to date is better by six slayings, or about 10 percent.

The homicide rate had been progressively declining year after year until a string of violent weekends this year resulted in multiple shooting deaths.

Police, academics and city officials caution that it's too early to draw any conclusions about the year's murder rate.

Jerry Ratcliffe, a Temple University professor of criminal justice, said that any hard-core analysis of the city's homicide rate is preliminary.

"It's too early in the year to be talking about any type of conclusions," Ratcliffe said. "If we're up 40 percent with two months left in the year, then I'd be concerned."

Mayoral press secretary Mark McDonald said yesterday that safety is Mayor Nutter's top priority in his vision for Philadelphia. While the administration is well aware of the increase in homicides in January and February, McDonald pointed to the bigger picture: homicides fell 22 percent between 2007 and 2010 and violent crime is down 13 percent since the mayor took office.

The economy's impact on the city finances, however, put a wrinkle in Nutter's priorities and promises, resulting in two canceled Police Academy classes and monthly reductions in the police force, McDonald said.

Today in his budget address, Mayor Nutter was to ask City Council for money to pay for 120 officers to deal with the attrition that has plagued the police department.

Still, police can do only so much.

Deputy Police Commissioner Richard Ross, a former homicide captain, blamed a bevy of social problems for the rate bump, from the ready availability of illegal guns to the hotheadedness of city thugs.

About half the homicides to date this year were indoors, he said.

"I don't know how you fix that on the backs of the police department," Ross said.