THE NUMBER 300 hung in the air as Christmas approached, nervously watched by a city trapped in a race between time and death. For eight straight years, Baltimore's homicide rate had topped the 300 mark, and it seemed inevitable that 1998 would become the ninth.
No. 299 came on the morning of Thursday, Dec. 17, and for several days, there was quiet. But the lull did not comfort grizzled homicide investigators. For them, the question was not "if" another body would fall, but "when."
They did not have to wait long. No. 300 came on Monday, Dec. 21. The next day, The Sun ran a story about the killing on the front of the Maryland section. "300th homicide recorded in city," blared the headline. The victim seemed overshadowed by the the infamous statistic.
With 312 killings in 1997, Baltimore ranked as the fourth deadliest city in the nation per capita -- with 46 killings per 100,000 people -- behind Gary, Ind., New Orleans and Washington. The national average is about 6.8 per 100,000.
The last time Baltimore had fewer than 300 killings was in Baltimore had fewer than 300 killings was 1989. The record, 353, was set in 1993. Baltimore's murder rate, which stood at 314 on Thursday, remains steady while the number of killings drops in other major cities.
New York, with a population roughly 10 times greater than Baltimore's, recorded slightly more than 600 murders in 1998, compared with 767 in 1997. In 1990, New York recorded 2,262 murders, and the figure has dropped each year since. The drop is attributed to vigorous policing by the 40,000-member New York Police Department.
While Baltimore's murder rate remains high, the overall crime rate has fallen 30 percent since 1995, a figure that city police point to proudly.
To stem the deadly tide in Baltimore, Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier assigned up to 100 extra officers to the streets each day last month. The department hoped the December patrols would send the message that violent crime would not be tolerated.
It fell to Lt. Donald E. Healy to drive home the importance of the officers' mission. Addressing officers in the tactical room of police headquarters, Healy's voice boomed as he pounded his hands on the wooden podium: "We do not want another goddamn homicide in Baltimore City."
The redeployment of the officers had an unanticipated consequence: It drew national attention to a city already self-conscious about its murder rate.
The Boston Globe paid a visit to Baltimore and reported that the city was in a desperate race to save itself. The New York Times also came, along with U.S. News and World Report and "NBC Nightly News." Baltimore, where a TV series titled "Homicide" is shot, was portrayed as the city that couldn't stop the killings.
"The clear mission was to make an impact on these homicides and these shootings," said Maj. Timothy Longo, an aide to Frazier. "These are the areas that are most troubling to us, and the areas most troubling to citizens."
Top police commanders said they are frustrated that the media has all but ignored the 30-percent crime drop. Also, Longo noted a recent study by Johns Hopkins University students showing that Baltimore's downtown and tourist areas are safer than those of many other cities.
"I've never seen that in the newspaper," Longo said. "[In 1998] we shined in more places than were ever reported in the media. We have a lot to be proud of, and we have a lot to brag about when it comes to crime reductions in this city."
The attention to the murder number is particularly frustrating to Robert W. Weinhold Jr., the department's chief spokesman.
The overtime deployment, he said, was not a public relations ploy but was done because "the department has an obligation to do everything it can to reduce the number of homicides. Everybody says we want to keep it under 300. Of course we do. We want to keep it as low as possible."
Brunt of the blame
Police say they also are frustrated because they get the brunt of the blame for the killings - a majority of which they attribute to drug abuse, a social issue that Frazier says the police cannot solve. "We are 80 percent of the focus and 20 percent of the solution," he said.
The department points to statistics that show up to 85 percent of inmates have drug problems. State prison officials say heroin use rates among arrestees in Baltimore is the highest in the country, with 37 percent of the men and 48 percent of the women testing positive for heroin. Those are more than double the rates in New York and Philadelphia and six times higher than in Washington.
The anxiety about Baltimore's homicide rate climaxed with the 299th killing on Dec. 18. The next day, the wait for No. 300 took me to a shooting scene in the 2700 block of W. North Ave., a few blocks from Coppin State College. Familiar yellow police tape encircled the scene, and a crime-lab technician placed markers next to seven bullet casings found on the street and sidewalk.
I was standing nearby when James Cook, a carpenter, approached me and asked if the victim had died. At that point, the gravely wounded man was undergoing surgery. "I heard that Frazier wants to keep it under 300," Cook said before he walked away, slowly shaking his head.
A few minutes later, an officer guarding the scene asked the same question: "Will he be 300?" A plainclothes detective answered, yes, "if he dies." The officer responded: "You know that the mayor and the commissioner are standing over him at the hospital, praying, 'Don't die, please don't die.' "
The officer's dark humor tried to deflect the impact of the carnage occurring in some areas of the city. Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke saw it firsthand this summer, when he spent two evenings touring the streets with officers. He stood over a man who had four bullets in his back, and he talked to the victim's friend, who was more concerned about what would happen to the victim's cigarettes than about the shooting.
Schmoke places little significance on the 300 mark, but he concedes that it has become a psychological barrier. "I'm painfully aware of where we are," he said after the 299th killing, as he opened a new bowling alley on Pennsylvania Avenue.
"Anything below what we had last year, and we're moving in the right direction," said the mayor. "Getting below 300 would be great, but our real goal should be below 200."
The effort to keep the murder rate below 300 became a joke among some city police officers. They saw it as a futile effort to put a Band-Aid on a massive wound. Their cynicism was fueled by the media's fascination with round numbers and century marks.
Consider the phone conversation I had with a homicide detective in mid-December, as I spent a day glued to a police radio anticipating the 300th killing. "Anything going on yet?" I asked. "Nope," he replied, "we're just sitting here patiently waiting for 300."
The homicide count does not give an entirely accurate picture of the level of violence in the city. Aggravated assaults - beatings, slashings and other nonfatal acts of brutality - occur at a much higher rate and give a truer reflection of what's happening.
The homicide count also is deceiving for other reasons. The 1998 count, for example, includes people who were fatally wounded in 1997 but who died in 1998. It also includes people who died in 1997 but whose deaths were not ruled homicides by the medical examiner until 1998. Moreover, killings in state prisons in Baltimore are investigated by state police and are not included in the city's count. Last year, two slayings occurred in the downtown prison complex. The state medical examiner has not issued rulings on three other deaths.
The number also fails to include five people killed in a house fire in January 1998, though the medical examiner has ruled the deaths homicides. Police insist they cannot find a criminal intent and therefore have not classified the deaths as murders.
'Life doesn't matter'
All the numbers, definitions and rhetoric mean nothing to Sylvia Bouyer. She is the grandmother of Donte Brooks, the city's official 300th homicide victim.
He was shot in the head in the 1900 block of W. Lanvale St. about 2:30 a.m. on Dec. 21 and died seven hours later. Police have made no arrests but have listed robbery as a possible motive.
"Life doesn't matter to anybody," Bouyer said on Monday, hours after the 16-year-old was buried. She said she doesn't know why her grandson was killed or where he went during the hours before his death.
But Bouyer recalls a subtle change in her grandson's behavior shortly before he was killed. "He started kissing me on the cheek," the 55-year-old West Baltimore resident said. "He never did that before. Maybe he knew something bad was going to happen."
Donte was the sixth 16-year-old killed in the city in 1998. He joins a frightening list of other young slaying victims: two 14-year-olds, six 15-year-olds, ten 17-year-olds, seventeen 18-year-olds and twenty-one 19-year-olds.
It was supposed to be a year in which Baltimore police targeted youth violence. It ended just as deadly as the year before. And it left another family struggling to cope with its loss, even if the death is only a statistic to everyone else.
"It is really hard to bring a child up right," Bouyer said. "And in a blink of an eye, they are gone."
Peter Hermann covers the Baltimore Police Department for The Sun.