NYPD Commissioner William Bratton, pledging to keep pushing crime rates down, said Wednesday the city has a chance to reduce the number of homicides to below 300 -- a level not seen since 1951.

Speaking about his first five months since taking over as police commissioner, Bratton noted that there were 334 homicides last year -- a record low in the modern era of police record-keeping and a continuation of a decline that started more than two decades ago.

"Current trending is we may end the year with fewer than 300 murders this year, so that bellwether crime is continuing to go down in the city," Bratton told an audience of criminal justice experts, journalists and prosecutors at an event sponsored by the Manhattan Institute, a think tank.

Police officials have been cautious about making comparisons between homicide levels in the city further back than about 1961 or 1962, when modern record-keeping practices were started, and now. In the early part of the 20th century, police sometimes counted traffic fatalities as homicides.

Police recorded 243 homicides in 1951 and 294 in 1950, according to NYPD data obtained by Newsday.

Shootings and homicides historically increase in the city during the warmer spring and summer months, so Bratton's prediction depends on holding any surge in check. But if homicides do fall below 300, it would amount to a rate per 100,000 population of 3.57 or lower, compared with a rate of 30.6 per 100,000 in 1990, when the city hit a record 2,245 homicides.

In his speech, Bratton also said that if he got 1,000 new officers as proposed by some members of the City Council, the cops wouldn't come on duty for 14 months -- too long a delay to deal with the immediate problems of a spike in shootings around public housing areas in the Bronx and Brooklyn. Bratton had told the council Tuesday that the city can't afford the additional cops.

"I can't wait for those 1,000 officers," Bratton said. "I use what I have, I use overtime . . . that is what we do in policing, that is how we work, we are constantly shifting resources to ensure the city stays safe."

Bratton also stressed that the city remains a top target for terrorism despite a degraded al-Qaida central command.