Baltimore police are saturating the streets with officers called in on overtime and plucked from desk jobs in a last-minute attempt to quell an unrelenting murder count that could exceed 300 for the ninth straight year.
Though Baltimore's crime rate has dropped in nearly every other category, the number of slayings places the city among the nation's deadliest when violence is decreasing rapidly in many urban centers.
"Here's why you are here," said Lt. Donald E. Healy in a roll call room packed with 80 extra-duty officers on Thursday. "We do not want another homicide in Baltimore City. Shut those [drug] corners down."
The December initiative has brought many of the department's administrative functions -- such as weekly staff meetings and report filings -- to a temporary halt and forced plainclothes detectives back into uniform and onto street patrol.
Top commanders have canceled meetings and climbed into patrol cars for a night-shift tour. Motorcycle officers are blanketing North Avenue, writing tickets on what police call the main drug thoroughfare linking the city's east and west sides.
Some officers and supervisors call the tactics a misguided and last-ditch effort by the department to force favorable crime statistics by the end of the year. But Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier makes no apologies.
"At a certain point I think we have an obligation to do everything we can," he said as he patrolled the city's most dangerous streets on the east side Wednesday. "We can't stop the administrative side of the force permanently, but we can do it for 30 days."
Crime in Baltimore has decreased for three straight years, with categories such as auto theft showing declines not seen in more than a decade. Police statistics through September show robberies down 14 percent, assaults down 11 percent and larcenies down 8 percent.
But homicides haven't been under 300 since 1989. The count last year was 312; this year it stood at 294 through yesterday. This year's homicide rate in Baltimore, with a population of about 670,000, stands at 43 deaths per 100,000 residents, putting it behind only Gary, Ind., New Orleans and Detroit.
Slayings in New York, with 7.3 million people, have dropped from an all-time high of 2,245 in 1990 to 770 in 1997. As of Dec. 5, 571 people had been slain in New York, putting its homicide rate below 8 deaths per 100,000 residents and among the lowest in the country. Other major cities showing decreases include Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston and Washington.
Frazier noted on his recent patrol that Eastern District corners usually teeming with drug dealers and addicts were empty. But about 9 p.m., a call came for a shooting at 900 N. Chester St.,
two blocks north of Johns Hopkins Hospital.
"Two guys were arguing over a gun and one of them got shot," Sgt. Steven M. Krause told his boss. "We got the suspect. It's the third shooting tonight. One guy took seven in the chest and survived."
A few minutes later, an officer was overheard on his radio saying that the victim from Chester was "10-7" -- police language for "out of service." In this case, it meant that Anthony Jackson, 32, had become the city's 291st murder victim of 1998.
Frazier slowly shook his head. "We have 80 extra cops over here," he said. "Cops are tripping over each other. If somebody is intent on killing, it's going to happen. The corners are clear and there's still a dead guy in the street."
The police union president, Officer Gary McLhinney, said officers are confused by "strategies that are constantly changing." He warned about basing tactics on statistics, noting a recent scandal in Philadelphia in which commanders wrote off burglaries as property destruction to make the city appear safer.
"The minute you tell district commanders that their jobs are in jeopardy if they don't reduce the numbers, you see downgrading of crime, underreporting of crime and desperate initiatives that only waste resources and have no long-lasting effects," McLhinney said.
In January, police commanders were so concerned with the homicide numbers, particularly of victims 24 and younger, that they launched a Youth Violence Task Force to target juvenile gangs. They broke up several gangs by arresting dozens of members, the most notable being the Veronica Avenue Boys from Cherry Hill.
Last year, 137 people 24 and under were killed in the city. This year, the number of murders for that age group is 126.
In reaction to last year's homicide statistics, Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy said in January that the time for talk was over. Last week, she discussed a group headed by Harvard University criminologist David Kennedy, who has been studying Baltimore since April and has ideas that she believes "will be very useful in terms of planning criminal justice strategies."
Baltimore officials said Kennedy, the architect of a Boston program that helped reduce juvenile violence, is trying to determine which youths are likely to be armed. He would not comment on what he has found or when he expects to report to Baltimore officials on his findings.
The governor's office also has poured money -- 200 grants worth $3.8 million this year alone -- into Baltimore programs aimed at reducing violence.
Programs include probation officers riding with police to check up on recently released prisoners -- because much of the crime is by repeat offenders -- and regular drug testing for the city's 3,000 parolees and 20,000 people on probation.
But solutions do not come easily.
"All the bright people who have looked at this for years can't give you an answer," said Charles Wellford, a criminal justice professor at the University of Maryland, College Park.
A recent anthropology study in New York found "a change in the attitude of urban young people," Wellford said. "They don't want to die anymore. Violence had become a part of their whole culture, and they realized they just couldn't wipe out a generation."
Crime promises to be a hot topic of debate next year, as politicians vie to succeed Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke in 1999. Frazier has been criticized by some council members, who say his strategies for reducing the homicide rate have failed.
Frazier is trying to reach out to young citizens. He has opened 27 Police Athletic League Centers throughout the city, staffed by full-time officers.
The centers, open during the afternoon and night, are routinely packed. On Tuesday, Schmoke visited six of them in his annual Holly Trolley tour. He lighted Christmas trees and sang carols. Inside the Fort Worthington center in East Baltimore, three Ravens football players talked to an eager group of youngsters.
"I see myself in the same place that you are today," defensive end Keith Washington told them. "We had some of the same problems that you have -- drugs, guns and alcohol -- at a very early age. But you have to remember what is right."
At the same time, on the other side of the city, the Rev. Willie Ray, chairman and founder of Save Another Youth Inc., led one of his many candlelight vigils to stop the killings. This one was for Oliver Murdock, 73, a lifelong city resident who served two tours in Vietnam and spent 26 years as a police officer before being shot outside his West Baltimore home Nov. 28 in a robbery that netted $20.
In a steady rain, the group chanted a new theme, "One church, one corner, one community."
The Rev. John L. Wright, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Guilford in Columbia, called for a new city leader "who understands the pain and suffering."
Murdock's oldest son, Tomez, called his father's death "a sad moment for us, a trying time for the city."
But Ray's work is not done. Tomorrow, he will be at Edmondson Avenue and Poplar Grove Street, leading another vigil, this time for Markel Ward.
Ward, 14, was shot to death Dec. 5 over a $5 game of dice.
Pub Date: 12/14/98