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Killings in city remain steady

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Baltimore's mayor and police commissioner say that they're optimistic they can reduce homicides to 175 in 2002 -- an ambitious goal after failing to significantly reduce killings last year.

A total of 259 people were killed last year in Baltimore vs. 261 in 2000.

Reducing homicides is a central goal of Mayor Martin O'Malley's administration and could be critical to his future political success. O'Malley has pledged to decrease the number of homicides to 175 or fewer this year -- a goal that once seemed unattainable as Baltimore endured an average of 320 killings annually in the 1990s.

Expectations increased last year after Baltimore recorded 261 homicides, the lowest total in a decade, and many police officials thought they could reach the force's goal of reducing homicides to 225 last year. But a sharp increase in killings that began in early October dashed those hopes.

Despite the stubborn homicide numbers, O'Malley and Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris said they made significant progress overall, posting a 10 percent decline in violent crime through Dec. 22.

"It was another solid year," O'Malley said of 2001. "The one disappointment was that the homicide number didn't come down as much this year as we would have liked. But on the bright side, it is only the second time in 12 years that the [homicide total] has been below 300. No one can say [2000] was a fluke."

"This will make it a more dramatic achievement ... when it goes from [259] to 175," O'Malley added.

Two years into his term, O'Malley appears to be the only Democrat in a position to challenge Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend in the race for governor in November. If O'Malley decides to run, his success in reducing homicides could become a prominent campaign issue.

Shootings fell 5 percent. A 15 percent drop in reported robberies helped cut overall violent crime, which includes rapes and aggravated assaults. Property crimes, however, did not show major decreases. Burglaries remained steady, and auto theft increased slightly. Overall property crime, which includes theft, dropped 4 percent.

Norris credited the department's aggressive use of computerized crime tracking, specialized units and more sophisticated crime-fighting equipment -- including surveillance cameras and wiretapping devices -- with helping reduce crime.

"We told people this wasn't going to happen in one year or two years," Norris said in an interview. "There is a period of real work, labor into this, then all the sudden, there is a tipping point and it becomes, 'Why weren't we doing this forever?'"

After Deputy Police Commissioner Bert F. Shirey announced last month that he is retiring, Norris said he planned to shuffle several commanders and promote several to key positions in coming weeks. Norris declined to discuss specifics of the moves but said he probably will not go outside the department to fill positions.

Norris last shook up his command staff in May as the city endured a spate of killings. The commissioner pointed to the increase in homicides as one of the reasons for his decision to remove the department's highest-ranking African-American, Deputy Police Commissioner Barry W. Powell.

The department then made significant gains in reducing homicides. In July, the city recorded 10 slayings -- the lowest monthly total since 1984 -- and killings during the next two months remained relatively low.

But a surge in homicides that began in early October surprised police officials and wiped out any chance for continued reductions in homicide. From Oct. 1 through yesterday, 77 people were killed.

Even as Baltimore frets over stagnant homicide numbers, other cities are experiencing increases that began earlier last year. Chicago, Houston and Phoenix have seen significant rises in homicides. Police officials in several cities said they noticed increases in homicides after the terrorist attacks Sept. 11 -- mirroring the increase in Baltimore.

Initially, Baltimore police attributed the surge to their efforts to prevent terrorism by posting officers on guard duty rather than aggressively tackling crime in certain neighborhoods.

But police soon noticed another trend: a decline in the supply of high-quality drugs into Baltimore. Police officials speculated that the supply decreased because security at the nation's borders tightened.

The quality of drugs also declined, and turf wars between drug groups and within their ranks broke out, police officials said.

Many of the killings after the attacks Sept. 11 appeared to be drug-related and executions, police officials said. About 40 percent of last year's homicide victims were shot in the head, according to police statistics.

It is unlikely that the war in Afghanistan, a major world supplier of heroin, directly affected the Baltimore drug trade. The vast majority of Baltimore heroin comes from South America. Only about 5 percent of U.S. heroin comes from Afghanistan and its Southwest Asia neighbors. In the past few weeks, police officials have privately backed off the security theory, though Norris said in an interview that police still believe that dealers are experiencing supply problems.

City health officials said drug addicts are telling counselors that the quality of drugs has declined in recent months. City health officials also have said the decline in quality has led to fewer overdose deaths. Through Nov. 30, 234 people had died of overdoses -- possible evidence of decreased drug potency -- and the city is on pace to have far fewer people die of overdoses than the 302 in 2000, health officials said.

Sheila Dixon, City Council president, said that to achieve greater decreases the city needs to significantly increase treatment slots for its estimated 60,000 drug addicts. In the past two years, the city has added nearly 1,000 slots and last year treated about 20,000 for drug abuse. "As hard as you fight, you don't seem to make an inroad," Dixon said.

Dixon said that the increase in homicides starting in October was "disappointing" but that the Police Department is doing a fairly good job at reducing crime.

Crime trends varied by district through Dec. 22, the last day statistics were available.

In the Southeastern District, homicides increased from 17 to 23, and shootings increased from 60 to 79, but overall violent crime declined 7 percent.

In the Northeastern District, 31 people were killed last year vs. 16 in 2000; 72 were shot vs. 50; and aggravated assaults increased slightly. But overall, violent crime decreased 6 percent.

The city's two most crime-ridden districts produced mixed results. In the Eastern District, homicides continued to decline -- with 38 people killed vs. 51 in 2000. Shootings remained steady. Overall, violent crime dropped 17 percent. In the Western District, shootings decreased 22 percent, but homicides increased from 41 to 49. Burglaries rose 19 percent, and overall property crime jumped 10 percent. Overall, violent crime dropped 8 percent.

Despite the bumpy year, Norris said he believed the Police Department had made significant gains -- and pointed as evidence to the new standards people are using to judge his success.

"I'm so proud of the fact that the benchmark is no longer 300, 320 murders a year," Norris said. But "this is still far too violent a place."

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