Baltimore recorded fewer than 300 homicides last year for the first time in more than a decade, curbing a vicious cycle of killings that stained the city as one of the nation's most violent urban centers.
The year ended yesterday with 262 homicides, well below the 305 in 1999. That broke a barrier that seemed impossible in April, when the number of killings exceeded the previous year's pace by nearly three dozen.
"It's a tremendous morale boost to the Police Department," said Commissioner Edward T. Norris. At the same time, he called 262 killings a "terrible number."
"It's nothing to do back flips over," Norris said. "It doesn't make us the safest city in the country. But it shows that we can make a big difference."
Getting under 300 killings has long been a goal of city leaders and police - and part of an anti-crime plan that helped propel Martin O'Malley into the mayor's office.
For a city with a long history of violence, the reduction is an important psychological victory in its war on crime, one that has proved frustratingly elusive for years.
Baltimore's new police leader attributes the decrease to back-to-basics policing. In August, Norris deployed a small army of police to the east side, the most violent area, where officers racked up more than 3,000 arrests and homicides plummeted. And he created a warrant task force, which has taken 114 murder suspects off city streets.
"We put the handcuffs on sooner rather than later, and we actually have an impact on violent crime," Norris said.
But statistics hardly matter to the families left to grieve. Rosalind L. Knott, 45, has lost two sons to shootings - and a third wounded by eight bullets - since April 1998. "Every time I turn on the TV, they are telling me that crime is down," Knott said. Her son Ernest L. Knott III, who was shot and killed Dec. 6, would have turned 23 the next week.
"It's all lies," she said, crying as she sat among family members in her Northeast Baltimore home recently. "No mother should have to mourn like this. You tell me why I have two sons taken by gunfire, lying side by side in a grave."
Baltimore has experienced more than 300 murders each year since 1990. Most are blamed on the city's volatile cocaine and heroin trade fueled by an estimated 60,000 addicts who stumble around desolate neighborhoods pockmarked by boarded-up rowhouses, vacant lots and trash-filled alleys.
Police officers had T-shirts emblazoned with "The city that bleeds," mocking the city's old slogan, "The city that reads."
The high homicide rate, which escalated as the population decreased by thousands each month, put Baltimore in second place in 1999 in per capita homicides, behind only Gary, Ind., and ahead of Washington, Detroit, Atlanta and New Orleans.
Baltimore, the nation's 19th-largest city, finished 1999 with the fifth-highest homicide total. Only New York, Chicago and Los Angeles - each with at least 3 million residents - and Detroit, with just under 1 million, were higher.
Years of unrelenting violence cost a police commissioner, Edward V. Woods, his job in 1993, when Baltimore set a record with 353 slayings.
Then-Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke replaced Woods with Thomas C. Frazier, an outsider from California, whose tumultuous regime also failed to stop the killings.
O'Malley took over City Hall 13 months ago, vowing to overhaul the police force and quickly cut crime and reduce homicides to 175 by 2002.
At year's end, the mayor offered several reasons for the decline during his first year in office, from ending the controversial policy of rotating homicide detectives into different jobs to boosting officer's salaries and, in turn, their morale.
"The Police Department is far more motivated, and officers are far more active in getting out of their cars to solve problems," he said.
Officials have long acknowledged that Baltimore and other big cities are judged by their homicide numbers, even though killings represent a fraction of violent crimes and are rarely random.
"You don't want people being murdered on your streets, regardless of the reason or cause," said Donald P. Hutchinson, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee, a consortium of business executives.
The group has pumped $350,000 into various crime-fighting efforts, studies and the hiring of a prosecutor to target gun offenders, arguing that the high homicide rate and violent reputation has hurt Baltimore's standing in the business community.
For the most part, homicides are concentrated in depressed areas of the city, away from downtown and many residential areas. But Hutchinson said he feels uneasy walking in parts of other cities, such as Atlanta and New Orleans, and imagines that visitors feel the same about Baltimore.
The homicide rate, he said, "has a tremendous psychological impact outside the city."
Significant drops in crime, as much as 30 percent in recent years, have been overshadowed by the city's stubborn homicide figures, which remained steady even as cities such as New York, Boston, New Orleans and Los Angeles experienced unprecedented declines.
Norris, a former deputy commissioner in New York City, is credited with developing a successful crime plan for New York City that reduced homicides there from 2,245 in 1990 to 671 in 1999, giving a metropolis with 7.4 million people one of the lowest per-capita murder rates - 9.1 per 100,000 - in the country.
Baltimore, with its murder rate of 48.2 per 100,000 in 1999 would have to reduce homicides to about 56 a year to experience a rate similar to New York's.
But now there seems to be a reversal of fortune. During the first six months of 2000, according to FBI statistics released Dec. 18, killings have increased in most big cities. Baltimore, after years of watching local homicide rates rise while crime declined nationally, is one of the few cities experiencing a decrease.
Criminologists do not view homicide numbers as a good barometer of crime. In statistics, killing someone counts the same as stealing a stereo from a car.
Homicides, said James J. Fyfe, a professor of criminal justice at Temple University, "really don't affect most people." And killings are hard crimes to prevent. "It's easy to protect a place. You can flood the area around Camden Yards and stop muggings," he said. "But if Joe wants to shoot Charlie, it's a hell of a lot more difficult to stop."
The homicide toll in Baltimore has been staggering. Figures compiled from police and medical examiners' records show that 14,446 people have been killed in Baltimore since 1812. The city, nicknamed Mob Town during the Civil War, has always been known for violence, from the rough-and-tumble days of roving gangs in the 1840s to the Election Day riots in the latter half of the 19th century.
In the 1940s, The Sun reported a crime wave "rolling across the city" and noted that nearly one in five males over age 18 had an arrest record. The city had about 950,000 residents, and averaged just under 100 murders a year, on par with other major cities at the time.
But it was the 1990s that established Baltimore as a murderous city. During the decade, the population dropped by more than 100,000, to 632,000, while homicides continued at an alarming pace.
With each violent death, a family mourned, most having gained little public attention. Rosalind Knott said she doesn't like the preoccupation with the numbers that shroud the names.
Her sons Daniel P. Smith, 22, and David Smith, 16, were shot April 2, 1998, as they stood on their porch in the 1100 block of W. Saratoga St. The elder brother died; the younger was hit eight times. He survived, but has three bullets lodged in his chest.
Police said four assailants rode down the street shooting from bicycles. No motive has been discerned, nor has any arrest been made.
Last month, another of Knott's sons, Ernest L. Knott, 22, was found shot in the head in a car in the 600 block of Cokesbury Ave. in East Baltimore. That shooting occurred 75 feet from another fatal attack on the same street three days earlier, though police said the two cases do not appear related.
Police have made an arrest in the slaying of Ernest Knott, but have declined to discuss a motive other than to say they believe the shooting was related to drugs. Patrol officers call that strip of Cokesbury, behind Cecil Elementary School, "Reefer Row."
Rosalind Knott said her sons who died had worked at a Towson restaurant and proudly showed off a certificate that Daniel had earned for prompt service at the Marriott Inner Harbor Hotel three months before he was killed.
Ernest Knott was engaged and had two children, Ernest IV, 6, and Troy, 4.
She said the motive behind the shootings doesn't matter. "How is it that crime is going down when my three sons have been shot?" she asked. "I don't believe the politicians. Crime may be going down, but only in their neighborhoods. This is a bad city. I don't want to live in Baltimore anymore."
Experts who have studied Baltimore's crime problem say it can be curtailed by understanding its root causes and having police target the offenders.
Harvard criminologist David Kennedy concluded in 1999 that the average homicide suspect in Baltimore had been arrested 9.6 times before being charged with murder and the typical victim had been arrested 8.5 times before being killed.
Ernest Knott had been arrested on drug distribution charges early last year; the charges were dismissed by a District Court judge during a preliminary hearing a day before he was killed.
Police say that of the 149 people arrested in killings last year, 54 were on parole or probation.
Kennedy found that half the suspects were involved in a drug gang and that 60 percent of the killings occurred in or near a street drug market.
"It's not immune to understanding and not immune from prevention," Kennedy said.
Police have answered his diagnosis by hitting high-crime areas, targeting violent offenders and making thousands of arrests.
"We're finally allowed to be the police again," said Officer Gary McLhinney, the police union president and sharp critic of the former police administration, which, he said, confused officers with contradictory strategies.
Norris launched a 75-member task force to target violent criminals and to clear a backlog of 54,000 unserved arrest warrants. Since June, officers have arrested 2,614 people, including 114 wanted for murder and 152 wanted in shootings.
Police also targeted 10 drug corners throughout the city and report a reduction in crime at each one. But the most noticeable effect may be in the Eastern District, where at the beginning of the year, violent crime was up 11 percent.
More than 100 officers were sent to the area in August to clear drug corners and arrest dealers. Since then, killings have dropped from 21 to seven and shootings from 79 to 32 over the same period in 1999.
Task force officers made their 3,000th arrest on Dec. 17, one-third for felony drugs, and report stopping and questioning more than 15,000 people.
When the officers first rolled out, Lt. Keith F. Tiedemann said that finding drug dealers was easy. The week before Christmas, he said, he hid in a vacant rowhouse, "and I had to wait an hour before one set up."
Police officials acknowledge that city crime rates are not low enough, but say the drops in violent offenses and homicides give Norris momentum to carry out his programs.
Norris said getting the number of homicides under 300 is "just a beginning of things to come."
Now, he said, "we look at the next big milestone: 200."