Violent crime plummeted in Baltimore in the first three months of this year, picking up where 1996 left off when the number of assaults, shootings and robberies dropped significantly for the first time in a decade.
Police officials are taking credit for the reductions -- nearly 20 percent for violent crime and 14 percent for property crime -- saying three years of incremental changes in the department are starting to pay off.
"I think that it validates our strategies that we put in place," said Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier, who was hired three years ago as shootings and homicides hit record levels. "This has got to make a noticeable difference."
Frazier said that moving 330 officers from desk jobs to street patrol, targeting guns and violent drug dealers and using squads of officers to hit "hot spots," or neighborhoods with the highest concentrations of crime, have driven the numbers down.
"A lot more attention is paid to crime," said Maj. Timothy Longo, commander of the Southeastern District. "Policing had become very reactive. Now, we're looking at where the problem is before it comes back and attacks us."
Police also pointed to more community involvement as a further discouragement to crime.
Despite this much-heralded drop in crime, Baltimore remains a violent city. Even if the trend holds for the year, Baltimore residents will see crime rates similar to those of a decade ago, when crack cocaine first flooded city streets.
And as the statistics became known yesterday, reactions varied. Marguerite Monk of South Baltimore, who installed a steel door and deadbolt locks last year after a neighbor's house was burglarized, said she has seen improvements.
"We have more police in the area and you can really see a difference," Monk said. "You can look out your front window and not see people shooting up [drugs] in the alleys. So, naturally, everybody feels safer."
But Jean Yarborough, president of the Park Heights Networking Community Council, questioned the decline in crime. "Maybe their stats show that, but I don't see it," she said. "As far as I'm concerned, the corners are awful. It is getting overwhelming and we don't know what to do."
National downward trend
Until last year, Baltimore had been bucking a national trend in which serious crime had been dropping steadily, with the largest declines posted in major cities. City crime had soared 40 percent since Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke took office in 1987, mostly blamed on the introduction of crack cocaine that fueled open-air drug markets and shootings.
That changed when police statistics for all of last year showed a 9.3 percent decrease in violent crime, compared with 1995. Crime had dropped in virtually every category except homicides, which increased slightly -- from 325 in 1995 to 331 last year.
Numbers released yesterday by the Baltimore Police Department show sweeping reductions in everything from shootings to car thefts in virtually every part of the city. Officials are comparing the first three months of this year to the first three months of last year.
The number of robberies has decreased 20.8 percent, from 2,693 to 2,133; assaults -- which include shootings -- dropped 17.3 percent, from 2,055 to 1,699; and burglaries dropped 19.2 percent, from 3,470 to 2,803.
As of yesterday, 75 homicides had been committed in Baltimore since January, down 15.7 percent from 89 during the same period last year. During that same time, nonfatal shootings dropped 26.4 percent, from 390 to 287.
Donald P. Hutchinson, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee, called the decline significant. He said the biggest problem is "the illicit drug market and the effect it has on crime."
But Hutchinson said fear of crime is still troubling -- some of which he blamed on the media: "I think the average person is more affected by the lead story [on television] if there is a murder tonight, than a story in tomorrow's paper that crime is down."
For example, he and his wife changed their walking patterns in Federal Hill after recent newspaper accounts of a series of armed robberies near Federal Hill Park, even though crime overall has dropped in the area.
Some residents complained yesterday that police aren't present their neighborhoods or that the city cares only about protecting tourist areas of Fells Point, Little Italy and the Inner Harbor.
"I hear gunfire at night, I see people on steps who shouldn't be there," said Dorothy Jones, president of the Greenmount West Community Association. "I don't feel safer. I don't see any more ++ police."
Frazier has been under considerable pressure in the past few months as he weathered calls for his resignation by Democratic City Councilman Martin O'Malley of the 3rd District and the police union. Both had said the chief failed to implement a comprehensive strategy to reduce crime.
They have repeatedly called upon Frazier to copy New York's "zero-tolerance" policing efforts, widely credited with reducing crime there. Frazier has rejected citywide zero-tolerance, saying overburdened judicial system cannot handle an increased caseload.
But he has supported a more limited approach, allowing district commanders to use extra officers to crack down on all types of crime in neighborhoods, a way of taking back the city "block by block if necessary, house by house if we have to."
Last weekend, the Southeastern District completed such an initiative in the Fells Point and Patterson Park neighborhoods, arresting 61 people on charges from drugs to gun possession and citing dozens more for drinking in public and lewdness.
Two months after recording the 9.3 percent crime drop for all of last year, Frazier called for an additional 300 officers, saying the public is frustrated and "we need to break away from incremental gains to achieve dramatic cuts in violent crime and homicides."
'A hard time believing'
Officer Gary McLhinney, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3, which has called for Frazier's ouster, said credit for the drop goes to officers and residents, not to the commissioner's policies. He said many district commanders are practicing zero-tolerance policing despite reluctance from Frazier.
He said it may take more time before people notice a difference.
"I think the average citizen is going to have a hard time believing that it is actually safer in their particular neighborhoods," McLhinney said.
Pub Date: 4/17/97