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Editorial

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Fighting crime: what works for Baltimore

Baltimore City Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts is still relatively new on his job, so it's probably unfair to make too much of his unfortunate response to a question last week about the recent spate of gun violence that left nine people dead on the city's west side. "Though we're having a spike in homicides," Mr. Batts said, "our organization is working better, faster and smoother, and you can see it in the overall stats."

There was nothing factually wrong in Mr. Batts' answer; department statistics show an 8 percent drop in crimes of all types over this time last year. But it missed the larger point: The crime statistic people care about most in Baltimore — and the one that most defines how others perceive the city — is how many homicides occur every year. The TV show wasn't called "Overall Stats: Life on the Streets."

Last year marked the first time since 2009 that that the city recorded more homicides than the previous year, and to date this year has been worse yet. So far, there have been 15 murders in West Baltimore alone, half the area's total for all of 2012. Overall, the city has seen a total of 46 killings this year, a nearly 40 percent jump over the 33 recorded this time last year.

Some of the explanation may be that homicides can be a cyclical phenomenon, a product of the complex economics of the illegal drug trade. But there's reason to question whether the Police Department's response will have a lasting effect.

Police have responded by flooding neighborhoods where the violence is occurring with officers on foot patrol to beef up a visible presence. Last week, the department dispatched dozens of police academy cadets to walk the streets of West Baltimore in a show of strength.

The department is also making a point of reaching out to residents in the affected neighborhoods. It set up an anonymous tip line where citizens can call in information about drug- and gang-related activity, and this week Mr. Batts and his lieutenants plan to attend a town hall-style meeting at a local church where they will appeal directly to residents for help in identifying suspects.

Yet it remains to be seen how much of an impact such measures will have on quelling the violence. It's one thing to deploy massive forces to blanket an area with officers, but the success of the operation may ultimately depend less on how many police are on the streets than on what they actually do while they are there. Simply putting troubled neighborhoods on lockdown may temporarily drive away the most violent offenders. But once the police leave, those bad actors are likely to return.

What drove down homicides in recent years was not an attempt to control real estate but to target illegal guns and violent offenders. Since the police can't be everywhere all the time, any strategy that depends on having large numbers of officers available on overtime to tamp down violence is ultimately unsustainable.

It's also unnecessary, given that most serious crimes are committed by a relatively small number of hardened career offenders — perhaps fewer than 500 people in Baltimore City by some estimates. Police in Baltimore have had their greatest successes in reducing overall crime when they focused relentlessly, even obsessively, on getting illegal guns and the most violent offenders off the streets. That's a continuing project that demands constant attention even as the new commissioner reorganizes his department and shakes up its command structure.

Mr. Batts arrived here after 20 years leading law enforcement efforts on the West Coast, and Baltimore could benefit from many of the ideas that worked for him there, such as enlisting residents' support in crime-prevention efforts and encouraging employers to hire more young people from troubled communities as a way of keeping them out of trouble. But it can't come at the expense of a strategy that we know works.

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