After the two most murderous years in city history, the number of homicides has fallen 18 percent in the first six months of 1994, and police officials are optimistic that the trend will continue.
"It would take a major slaughter to bring us back up to where we were last year," said Capt. Howard F. Parrott, who heads the city homicide unit. "We're more than 30 murders behind, and that's some pretty good news."
Police reported 141 homicides in the first six months of 1994, down from 172 in the same period in 1993, when the city went on to its deadliest year ever, with 353 killings. That broke the record of 335 homicides set in 1992.
Police attribute the drop this year to one of the coldest winters of the century, gun and drug raids in a crime-torn East Baltimore neighborhood and a new police commissioner's push for officers to seize more guns from criminals.
"It could be that we've seen the peak the last two years and now we're going down the hill," said Officer Ed Bochniak, who investigates shootings in the Eastern District, which includes some of the city's deadliest neighborhoods. The district accounted for 83 homicides and more than 500 shootings last year.
Officer Bochniak attributed much of this year's decline to the residual effects of several raids that began March 19, when 100 police officers swept through the troubled Barclay-Midway community, arrested 50 alleged drug dealers and seized drugs and handguns. City officials also hauled off 140 tons of trash.
"I'm looking on our wall map of shootings, and we don't have any dots in that area anymore," Officer Bochniak said. "It's empty. Last year, we couldn't fit any more dots on that part of the map."
Ken Brown, a community coordinator for the East Baltimore Midway-Barclay Community Association, agreed that homicides and shootings have dramatically decreased in that area. But he warned about putting too much emphasis on statistics.
"Statistics are not a good measuring tool. Numbers go up and down for a lot of different reasons. Unemployment figures go up and down, too. Nothing is permanent," he said.
"After the raids, these teen-age drug dealers disappeared down the side streets. Now we've lost the extra police we've had, and they've been steadily coming back," Mr. Brown said. "I've been getting complaints from residents again."
Investigators said the homicides this year are following the same pattern -- young black men killed with handguns, primarily as a result of drug disputes. The cold weather kept drug dealers off the streets, which accounted for a drop in homicides during the winter, they said.
"You're not dealing with Hollywood murders," said Captain Parrott, the homicide unit chief. "Nothing's changing as far as how they're being committed. We still have a terrible drug problem out there, and a lot of violent people looking to solve their problems with a 9-mm."
In the first five months of the year, 88 of 113 slayings, or 78 percent, were committed with handguns, Other firearms were used in two of the killings.
4th District City Councilman Lawrence A. Bell III said he is happy to see the decline but warned, "We've still got a long way to go.
"There's still a lot of work that needs to be done. But I have to give [Police Commissioner Thomas C.] Frazier credit. I've seen a greater visibility of police out there, and that's due to him," Mr. Bell said.
The councilman said he has seen more foot patrols in his own West Baltimore neighborhood, at Auchentoroly Terrace and Gwynns Falls Parkway.
"It's been a long time since I've seen officers out there," he said. "I think it's a clear indication the commissioner has had some impact."
Mr. Frazier, who came to the Police Department in January from the San Jose, Calif., department, said he got a break shortly after his arrival when a severe cold spell hit the area.
During the coldest week of the winter, Jan. 14-21, the temperature hit a low of 4 below zero in the city and averaged 13.5 degrees. Baltimore had two homicides that week, both committed indoors, police reported.
From Feb. 1 to Feb. 18, there were nine homicides , down from 16 during the same period in 1993, police said.
"I think the weather accounts for some of it. But you also have to look at things like the [Midway-Barclay] initiative and our restructuring of our drug enforcement capability," Mr. Frazier said.
He said he has stressed to officers that they should go after drug distributors and focus less attention on drug users.