Baltimore Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris said yesterday that violent crime -- especially homicide -- has increased sharply recently, and he believes part of the reason is that his department has been "distracted" by its anti-terrorism efforts.
It is not the first time the city has endured a rash of homicides and shootings this year. But the increase in violent crime occurs as the department is concentrating on making Baltimore a hard target for terrorists. That focus could make it difficult for city police to reach their goal of reducing homicides to 225 this year.
"There's been a real spike in violence, and a lot of that, I believe, is linked" to spending resources on preventing potential terrorist attacks, Norris said. "We've had a terrible spike the last two, three weeks."
The city has recorded 18 homicides in the past 19 days, pushing the number of killings this year to 198. Last year at this time, 219 people had been killed in Baltimore.
The recent homicides have been particularly violent. Two men were found dead in the trunks of burning cars, another was rolled up in bed sheets and set ablaze, and a man was shot once in the head in Fells Point. Two people were found tied up in a wooded area of North Baltimore, left to die of exposure.
The city has also recorded 2 percent more nonfatal shootings in the past month than in the comparable period last year. That's a sharp departure from the trend: for the year, shootings are down 31 percent.
Norris said, "We've got to focus on protecting the city" from terrorist threats, but he added that he did not want that to overshadow crime fighting.
"You've got to protect the citizens from the violence in the streets, because there's still a lot more people that have been killed by gunshots this month than anthrax in Baltimore," Norris said.
Before the terrorist attacks Sept. 11, Mayor Martin O'Malley's top priority was reducing crime, and he pledged to reduce homicides to 175 next year. Last year, the city saw its fewest homicides in a decade, 261.
O'Malley said yesterday that he didn't know if it's "true or false" that the crime surge is due to the department's recent anti-terrorism focus. He said he hopes to "continue progress" on the crime front.
"Hopefully we'll be able to get through this bad period and finish the year gangbusters. I don't want people to think that last year was a fluke," O'Malley said.
Norris and other high-ranking police commanders said the reasons for the spike were several: Commanders have been stretched thin preparing for terrorism and have not been able to concentrate fully on supervising crime-fighting efforts; officers have been dispatched to protect buildings and facilities rather than aggressively going after criminals; and officers have been responding to dozens of calls for bomb threats and suspicious packages.
"You can see, if police are guarding buildings and things, you know we only have but so many," Norris said. "My strategies ... rely on really proactive strategic policing, and that doesn't include standing in front of buildings. ... You know we only have so many people."
Norris said criminals can tell that the department is "distracted."
"My experience has been that the criminals, they sense the second your foot is off of them," Norris said. "Once you're not pressuring them constantly, it takes about a day for them to figure it out. They sense when certain units are not on the street. We're distracted. ... It happened to us in New York a couple of times, and I think it's happening to us now. So we gotta get back on them."
Police officials said that some officers and detectives who specialize in tracking trends and gathering criminal intelligence have been working almost exclusively on counter-terrorism efforts. Patrol officers are also handling calls for bomb threats and suspicious packages, which have pulled them from regular duties, commanders said.
"It takes up time," said Maj. Elfago Moye, commander of the Eastern Police District. "The time someone is there handling a hoax they can be out clearing a corner or preventing someone from being robbed or shot."
Police received 69 calls for potential "biohazard" events Monday, the day anthrax was reported on Capitol Hill.