Anthony W. Batts

Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts says the department is "far from celebrating" after an historically peaceful stretch. (File photo) (Christopher T. Assaf / Baltimore Sun / November 12, 2013)

Homicides in Baltimore reached their lowest monthly total in three decades in March, a stark turnaround that police cautiously attributed to better patrols and intelligence-sharing after a bloody start to the year.

Seven people were killed in March, the lowest monthly total since June 1983. The city has recorded fewer than 10 killings in a month just four times since 1970.

March ended on an ominous note — with five shootings Monday, including one man who died after walking into a hospital with gunshot wounds. Still, for at least one month, Baltimoreans experienced a homicide rate — 13.5 per 100,000 people — that rivaled cities such as Oklahoma City, Pittsburgh, Toledo, Ohio, and Norfolk, Va.

Baltimore officials were measured in their reaction to the drop, and experts noted that a single month can be an aberration. But Baltimore police say they believe that new strategies, including measures to free up patrol officers and expand the number of heavily monitored crime zones, are working.

"It's too early to know where we will land by the end of the year, but last year was far too violent," Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said. "I know our city can be safer if we do the right things and work with communities to build additional trust so we can find criminals before they act."

She said she hopes the trend will continue, aided by recent sting operations intended to sweep repeat offenders off the streets. Operation Ceasefire, a city-sponsored program to target violent criminals through intervention, will launch soon.

Last year, six people were killed in the first four days of March, a month that ended with 20 homicides. The year ended with 235, a four-year high, and the second straight year that killings had increased.

Overall, the city has recorded 44 homicides in 2014, seven fewer than at the same time last year.

"We're far from celebrating; we're far from jumping up and down," Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts said last week. "We're going in the right direction."

Gary LaFree, a criminology and criminal justice professor at the University of Maryland, said it will be easier to tell whether such efforts are effective when there is a year of crime statistics to review.

"When you're talking about numbers like this in a short period of time, there's a fair amount of fluctuation," he said.

Among the strategies that police believe are working is the re-implementation of an expanded telephone reporting unit, said Lt. Eric Kowalczyk, a Baltimore police spokesman.

Since last year, the department has rotated about a dozen officers rehabilitating from injuries or illnesses into the unit, where they take police reports over the phone for emergency calls classified as non-immediate. Such crimes include stolen vehicles, property damage, larceny or other complaints for which police believe an officer on the scene is not necessary. Patrol officers save nearly 50 minutes on average per report, enabling them to spend more time on the streets.

Patrol officers also are getting more access to shared intelligence and lists of violent repeat offenders that had previously been given to special enforcement units and detectives, Kowalczyk said.

At the beginning of January, police expanded the number of areas they believe to be high-crime zones from four to 17, deploying heavier patrols and enforcement operations in those areas. It wasn't until the third week in January, Kowalczyk said, that all 17 zones were in operation.

The year had started as one of Baltimore's worst in recent history, with 27 homicides and 31 nonfatal shootings in January. Since then, the number of shootings has fallen sharply, with 10 people killed in February.

March has been less violent in recent years. According to city data, 35 nonfatal shootings and homicides occurred between Feb. 1 and March 23. That is more than one-third less than during the same period last year and less than half the number five years ago.

While the drop in shootings is encouraging, it is little solace to those who knew the seven people who died in March, including Gregory Anthony Ware Jr., 18, who died March 14 after being shot in the 2900 block of E. Eager St. in February.

"The news is great. The drop in the numbers, the percentages, it's fantastic news. But by going to Gregory's candlelight vigil and his funeral, the main number that matters to the people who get killed and the people who live in poverty is No. 1," said Ware's friend Eric Garvin.

"They're looking out for themselves and their families, and if it's just one person in their community, someone they knew, that they loved, it's just as bad to them as if there were 20 murders or 30 murders a month."