The annual number of killings in Baltimore has fallen below 200 for the first time in more than three decades, a symbolic threshold that seemed elusive for a crime-weary city just four years ago.
As a new year begins, city officials say the decline is a major step toward revival efforts. Soaring crime and decades of abandonment made the city synonymous with urban violence in America, fictionalized on television crime dramas and leading to nicknames like "Bodymore, Murderland."
Frederick H. Bealefeld III took office. The 196 killings in 2011 were the fewest since 1977, and represent just the third time since the 1960s that the city recorded fewer than 200.
In 2010, 223 people were killed.
"For me, it's clear that these reductions in violent crime will be helpful in growing the city," Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said. "Families deserve to live in safe neighborhoods, and we're determined – no matter what neighborhood you live in, no matter what zip code — to protect that right."
U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein, who took over in 2005 and revamped his office to focus more on violent crime, said that the homicide count falling under 200 is "a very big deal."
"It represents thousands of children who have not been exposed to violence on the streets of Baltimore," he said. "It gives hope to people who have been told for their entire lives that gun crime must be accepted as a way of life."
The Police Department's Eastern District may be most emblematic of the city's improvements in public safety but also how far it still has to go. During the crack-fueled drug wars of the 1990s, killings in the district sometimes topped 80 a year. Last year, there were 27 killings, and only one since Oct. 17 — nothing to brag about and yet a remarkable number for this beleaguered area.
At 6 p.m. on a balmy December night, Deputy Major Robert Quick guided his unmarked car down a street in the Darley Park neighborhood where a group of young people had gathered. One of them yelled, and they started scrambling — going deep for a football pass, past homes decorated with Christmas lights.
"Kids playing football," Quick chuckled, almost in amazement. The 16-year veteran has worked in this district nearly his entire career and remembers when violence was relentless.
"When I came out in 1995, every day at least one person in the Eastern got shot. It was quite common on the [night] shift to have two shot in the same shift, every single day."
But the same underlying social problems — poverty, joblessness, blight — continue to trouble the area, and a 12-year-old boy was gunned down in this neighborhood in May. Residents warn that the city is walking a tightrope.
"There's no way we should be feeling comfortable," said City Councilman Carl Stokes, who lives in the district's Barclay neighborhood. "The conditions that breed the sort of nonsense of 20 years ago have not significantly changed, and if we don't do right by our young people, we could see another explosion."
While criminologists can't agree on what's driving the declines, local officials say they deserve credit for taking out violent drug organizations from top to bottom and breathing heavily down the necks of other known offenders through a policy of "targeted enforcement." Various agencies — from parole and probation to schools to federal prosecutors — are working together more closely than ever before, officials agree.
"A very small segment of our population pool disproportionately contributes to violent crime in this city. Many of these guys are known to us," Bealefeld said. "We've refined the system so officers on the street are pipelining that information to us."
Though murders tend to be related to drugs and other disputes, they're also generally viewed as a reliable barometer of crime because they are less subjective than other categories. Statistics for years showed that crime was plummeting here, at one of the most significant rates in the country, while homicides stayed flat.
As cities across the country saw unprecedented drops in recent years, Baltimore, Detroit, New Orleans and St. Louis remained in a tier of their own, seemingly unable to stem the violence. Washington, D.C., for example, which saw 479 homicides in 1991, recorded just 108 as of Thursday. This year, Baltimore and St. Louis saw large declines; Detroit and New Orleans saw big increases.
Baltimore's murder rate last year was about 31 killings per 100,000 people, still much higher than cities like Philadelphia (19.6 in 2010), Boston (11) and New York (6), but down considerably from a peak of 48 in 1993, during a decade in which 300 people were killed here every year.
It's not just murders that have declined — non-fatal shootings are down markedly, with 381 people being shot and surviving, compared with 725 in 2000, according to police.