Balto. Co.'s accomplishment [Editorial]

Last week, top officials in Baltimore County stood together to proudly announce that the homicide rate there was at its lowest level since Jimmy Carter was president. This week, top officials in the Baltimore City Police Department had to answer questions from City Council members about why homicides there were once again on the rise. For a host of reasons, comparing the two isn't really fair, but it is instructive to look at what has driven the drop in homicides in the county to see what could apply to the very different circumstances of the city.

Last year, Baltimore County, with a population of some 817,000, saw its deaths from homicides drop to just 19. That was the lowest number of murders recorded since 1976, and the 92 homicides between 2010 and 2013 represented the lowest four-year period since 1976-1979. Typically, the county has averaged 30 or more murders a year.

By contrast Baltimore City, with nearly 200,000 fewer people, saw 235 homicides during 2013 — a four-year high and an 8 percent increase over 2012. Baltimore's homicide total was just a few dozen shy of the number of murders in all of New York City, which has 12 times its population.

The county's recent decline in homicides didn't happen by accident, and it appears to be more than a statistical fluke. It was the result of policies that focused police on arresting habitual offenders before they could commit more serious crimes and drove prosecutors to get those convicted of gun violations off the streets and behind bars as quickly as possible.

The theory behind that approach was simple: The longer an armed robber remains on the streets, for example, the more likely he is to eventually harm his victims. If that happens, the result can easily turn into a fatal shooting or stabbing. Yet carrying out what is essentially a preventive strategy is anything but easy. It required a relentless effort by police and prosecutors to identify, apprehend and incarcerate the violent, repeat offenders who commit the most serious crimes before they ended up killing someone. And for that, police needed the community's help.

Building trust between police and the communities they serve has been an essential element of county Police Chief Jim Johnson's long-term strategy for reducing homicides. Yet in order to gain that trust, Chief Johnson's officers have to themselves possess a strong passion for justice and empathy for the victims of crime. That's something that had to be instilled in every member of the department — from the command staff down to the officer on the beat — as part of their training, and it had to be regularly reinforced until it became part of the department's professional culture.

Baltimore County's police department relies on a highly trained work force imbued with an ethic of excellence that is as diverse as the community it serves. This year, 45 percent of the county's police academy graduates are minorities or women, which will help ensure the force reflects the demographic makeup of the jurisdiction. The police department has also made significant investments technology and forensics that have allowed investigators to clear one of the highest percentages of cases of any jurisdiction in the country. And it has cultivated allies among business leaders and elected officials who realize the importance of reducing violent crime in order to maintain Baltimore County's reputation as a safe, desirable place to live.

That's something Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz has repeatedly cited as his top priority in leading the country forward, and it is a commitment shared by every member of his administration.

When city police commanders appeared before the City Council on Tuesday, much of the focus was on whether the department had strayed from former Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III's focus on "bad guys with guns" — a strategy not dissimilar from Chief Johnson's — and that's certainly a valid concern.

But the ingredients of the county's success suggest that there's more to consider as well. Baltimore County's phenomenal clearance rate for homicides — 95.7 percent in 2012 — speaks to the value of a well trained and experienced force. The city police union, offered a proposal in 2012 for a smaller but better compensated and better trained force in hopes of stopping a brain drain that sees many of Baltimore's best cops leave for more lucrative jobs — often in Baltimore County — once they have some experience. The idea never gained traction, but it's worth revisiting.

Finally, Commissioner Anthony Batts has made rebuilding trust between the department and the community a priority, and that's clearly important. But what's really needed is a culture in which violent crime — any crime, really — is considered intolerable, and achieving that is more than just a matter of police policy. It's going to take everyone from the mayor to the woman sitting on her stoop working toward the same goal: a city that's just as safe as its suburbs. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake had it right today when she called for "all hands on deck" to fight violence. The community needs to take her up on the challenge.

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