Baltimore will end the year with across-the-board declines in crime, continuing a three-year trend of plummeting gun violence in the city.
The declines come amid a strategy shift that has police making tens of thousands fewer arrests — and in spite of a bad economy that many believed would fuel higher crime rates. With Baltimore crime still high compared with other U.S. cities, officials see 2010 as another step forward.
Homicides have fallen about 7 percent to 222, giving the city its lowest number since the late 1980s, just before the crack cocaine epidemic sent crime soaring nationwide.
Nonfatal shootings have fallen nearly 40 percent since 2007, while reported robberies, which police said would be a focus this year, dropped 8 percent compared with a year ago. Crimes involving juvenile victims continued to decline, too.
"We've just been building and building," said Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III, who assumed control of the Police Department in 2007 amid resurgent crime. Since then, authorities have focused on targeting the worst of the worst — Bealefeld calls it fishing with a spear instead of a net. Officials say improved cooperation among state and federal officials has also been key.
"We've taken a very critical look at what works and what doesn't," said Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who took over as mayor early this year and has not changed the strategy developed by Bealefeld and her predecessor, Sheila Dixon.
Baltimore's drop in crime mirrors a nationwide trend. Other cities, including Philadelphia and Los Angeles, have seen larger drops in recent years and some are at four-decade lows. That has kept Baltimore, despite its strides, near the top of lists that rank the violent cities.
U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein said many of those cities had begun their declines years earlier.
"Baltimore was lagging," Rosenstein said. "Crime was dropping across the country, but it stayed high in Baltimore. What you have seen the last few years is tremendous progress. And keep in mind, it takes a lot of effort just to keep it where it is. The second challenge is to drive it down even further.
"If we stick with this strategy, you'll see continued improvement."
Officials agree that 200-plus homicides are still far too many, and the declining numbers bring little solace to those who have lost loved ones to violence.
David Douglas, who grew up in West Baltimore and has worked as a lawyer and vice president of an adult services company, buried his nephew, Davon Douglas, in late November. Davon was fatally stabbed in Southwest Baltimore.
"If you stay there for any length of time, Baltimore will take somebody from you," said Douglas, 59.
Davon had a record of drug violations, and his father died years earlier of AIDS, a result of drug addiction. On a walk through the neighborhood, young people pass by liquor stores and drug slingers who are trying to recruit, Douglas said.
Douglas said his 28-year-old nephew was friendly and respectful, and a talented artist and athlete. His funeral service attracted a large crowd.
"My nephew mattered, if not to others, then to us, his family," Douglas said.
Kim Kennebrew left Cherry Hill to join the military, and now lives outside Atlanta. But her 24-year-old daughter, Randol Buncombe, gravitated back to the city and, on Oct. 5, was fatally shot. Another man was shot and wounded, and Kennebrew believes the bullet was not intended for her daughter.
"I'm hurting every day," Kennebrew said. "It's sad. It just keeps going on."
Neither killing has been solved, and detectives have closed only about half of this year's cases. That's below the national average but on par with other large cities, said Maj. Terrence McLarney, commander of the homicide unit.
The coming year figures to be a pivotal one. Bealefeld made the rare move of openly advocating for a new state's attorney in this year's Democratic primary, placing a lawn sign at his Southwest Baltimore home in support of defense attorney Gregg Bernstein.
Bernstein, who entered the race late and with little name recognition, went on to defeat 15-year incumbent Patricia C. Jessamy using a tougher-on-crime platform. His election gives the city what many see as a three-headed crimefighter — Bernstein is married to Sheryl Goldstein, who is Rawlings-Blake's top adviser on crime and a key collaborator with Bealefeld. Jessamy warned that Bernstein would be a "rubber stamp" for police.
The Police Department also will see a significant shake-up in the top ranks, with the expected retirement of Deputy Commissioner Deborah Owens. Patrol chief John Skinner is expected to be promoted.
The past year saw several milestones. A man known as "Skinny Suge," who appeared in the infamous "Stop Snitching" video that had drawn national attention to the city's culture of witness intimidation, was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison. And three men arrested in the fatal shooting of former City Councilman Kenneth N. Harris were convicted by a city jury and given lengthy prison terms, as was a teen who hit a 5-year-old girl in the head with an errant bullet.
The late July killings of Johns Hopkins University researcher Stephen Pitcairn and church caretaker Milton Hill seemed for a time to shake the city from its apathy about crime. They occurred about a mile apart but in disparate areas, and generated outrage that attracted hundreds to rallies.
Pitcairn, 23, was walking home from Penn Station through the middle-class Charles Village neighborhood, when police say he was robbed and fatally stabbed while talking on a cell phone with his mother. The killing shook the quiet community, where such street crime is rare.
Days later, Hill, 70, was shot and killed in what police believe was a theft of his scooter. Hill cleaned up and maintained the property of a church next door to his home, and a vigil on the steps of that church attracted hundreds of people, who spilled out onto busy North Avenue and blocked traffic.
The Ark Church pastor, the Rev. J.L. Carter, said at the vigil that the city's "game plan" was "not working." He chastised City Hall and elected leaders.
"When you cut rec centers, when you close pools, you create these kinds of situations," he said to cheers. "It might be a piece of legislation for you, but our lives are on the line."
The city would later use the Ark Church as the setting for a news conference announcing a faith-based initiative to increase volunteer work in communities. Rawlings-Blake said she hopes to spur more community activism in the coming year.
"I am incredibly hopeful that it doesn't take murders to motivate people to get involved," she said Wednesday. "My hope is that we can appeal to human nature, the desire for everyone to want a better future for their children than they had. With that potential, there doesn't need to be a tragedy to turn the corner."
Police hope the steep drop in arrests will win back residents who became distrustful of police. There were 110,000 arrests in 2005 at the height of the city's zero-tolerance strategy; this year, police are poised to make fewer than 70,000 arrests. The difference is equivalent to the population of Hagerstown.
The city this year also settled a lawsuit brought in 2007 by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and American Civil Liberties Union over the mass arrests and has agreed to an audit reviewing "quality of life" arrests.
David Rocah, staff attorney for the ACLU of Maryland, said the pairing of falling crime rates and fewer arrests "proves that the spike in arrests was not only unconstitutional but counterproductive."
But he said the city has much work left to improve its perception in the community. "We continue to get complaints about police misconduct. … There are definitely still issues that need to be addressed," Rocah said.
Overall, violent crime declined about 4 percent and property crime dropped 3 percent compared with 2009, and officials say both categories are down more than 40 percent from 2000.
The one category of crime that increased was reported rapes, which had been on the decline until June, when The Baltimore Sun reported that for years Baltimore had led the country in the number of rape claims dismissed by detectives. Police immediately instituted new protocols, and as of Dec. 18, reported rapes were up 34 percent.
The city's response to that article has led to a complete overhaul of the unit and an influx of new resources — including grant funding and a new city employee hired to coordinate police, prosecutors, victims' advocates and hospital officials.
Earlier in the year, budget cuts threatened to decimate key Police Department units, and concerns over officers' pensions played a role in droves of veteran officers deciding to leave the force. Rawlings-Blake, who faces her first mayoral election campaign in the coming year, has pledged to hire 450 more officers but said additional cuts could be necessary in 2011.
"There's still a commitment [to] giving the police officers and the department the tools that they need to be effective crime fighters," she said. "Will there be budget cuts? My hope is that they will be minimal. But we have to fiscally responsible."
Baltimore Sun reporter Peter Hermann contributed to this article.