Homicides on pace for nearly 300 by year's end

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Baltimore's homicide toll is on pace to approach 300 this year, triggering high-level finger-pointing as officials scramble to explain what has gone wrong.

A recent spike in killings, including four one day this week, had pushed the year's homicide total to 221 as of late yesterday - 21 more than at the same time last year. Baltimore's homicide toll has been below 300 since 2000. The 300 figure is a symbolic benchmark set during the 1990s, the city's bloodiest decade.

Mayor Martin O'Malley says it's not fair for the Police Department to continue accepting the brunt of the blame.

Police Commissioner Kevin P. Clark says officers are locking up the right people but the rest of the criminal justice system is setting them free.

State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy's spokeswoman says prosecutors are doing their jobs and it's up to the courts to keep suspects behind bars.

The Circuit Court judge in charge of the criminal docket says police are using the courts as a scapegoat. The courts are swamped, and the police are continuing to flood the system with poorly investigated cases, he says.

"There's enough blame to go around," says David Miller, the chief visionary officer for Urban Leadership Institute, a city consulting firm that designs programs for children and families. "The blame can't solely fall on city government or state agencies. I just think Baltimore is a city that is numb."

Until 2000, the city experienced at least 300 homicides each year for an entire decade. The deadliest year was 1993, with 353 killings. O'Malley took office five years ago with a goal of reducing homicides to 175 by 2002. The number never dipped below 253.

In seeking his goal, the mayor has instituted a statistically oriented crime fighting strategy, and the numbers on homicides yesterday were sobering. The city is on pace for 293 killings this year, compared with 271 in 2003.

The number of shootings is also up - 484 through Sept. 25 this year, compared with 412 at the same point last year. Police say there has been a reduction in overall violent crime.

"This has been a year of mixed results," O'Malley says. "I'm not happy with the homicide rate. Nobody should be happy with the homicide rate."

The homicide rate can be a good indicator of a city's crime level because it's one of the few numbers a police department can't fudge, says Ralph Taylor, a criminal justice professor at Temple University.

Baltimore is the nation's 17th- most-populous city, according to the most recent census. But last year it had the eighth-most homicides, 271. The nation's 16th-largest city, Austin, Texas, recorded 27 homicides.

The national model for homicide reduction has been New York. The Big Apple has reduced its homicide count from more than 2,200 annually to 597 last year.

Charm City has attempted to bottle some of that magic and transport it south on Interstate 95. The Baltimore Police Department not only took its past two commissioners from the ranks of the New York Police Department, but also adopted that city's statistically driven style of policing.

Comstat, as it is known, calls for continuously monitoring and mapping crime, and then developing strategies to combat hot spots. One of the most elusive factors remains why it hasn't worked as well here.

Taylor - who wrote Breaking Away From Broken Windows, a book about crime-fighting strategies in Baltimore - says the difference might be in demographics on quality of life indictors such as income and drug use. Census data show that Baltimore has a larger percentage of people living below the poverty level than does New York. Baltimore has also been dubbed the heroin capital of the nation.

Clark says a lack of cooperation among the branches of the criminal justice system differentiates Baltimore from New York City.

He faults judges for releasing suspects both before trial and upon conviction. He chastises prosecutors for not obtaining enough handgun violation convictions. And he says the lack of unity and a lack of resident outrage are defining distinctions between New York's successful homicide-reduction effort and Baltimore's foundering effort.

Of the 220 people killed this year in Baltimore, 60 had been arrested earlier in the year by the department's organized crime division, mostly on felony drug and gun charges, police say. The organized crime division had also arrested 10 of the suspected killers, police say.

"We're going to keep going after the right people and pushing them back into the revolving door of the criminal justice system," Clark says.

O'Malley - who has criticized the U.S. attorney's office for its decline in gun prosecutions and the state's attorney's office for its prosecutorial efforts - says other agencies need to reassess themselves.

"It's not so much a matter of blame shifting as it is everybody realizing that there are independent agencies that have a bearing on whether or not the public is being protected from habitual predators and repeat violent offenders," O'Malley says.

Jessamy says in a written statement that only community involvement can stop the violence and that officials must stop finger-pointing. She praises a crime-reduction plan based on the Boston model of community policing, which reduced homicides there to 31 in 1999.

Says Clark of the prosecutors' plan: "Click your heels together; we ain't in Boston."

Councilman Kenneth N. Harris points out that the Police Department has faced distractions, such as the commissioner's domestic dispute in May, and a turnover in leadership since Clark's arrival last year. Sgt. Darryl Massey, the president of the department's minority officer advocacy group, notes that in five years the police have had three commissioners, as well as several interim and acting commissioners.

Circuit Judge John M. Glynn, who is in charge of the criminal docket, says the problem is complex. He says suspects can receive lenient sentences through plea bargaining because the system is overcrowded and they are willing to go to trial. He says suspects recognize that they may be found not guilty because of poor investigations or because many juries are more sympathetic to suspects than they are to police. By arresting more people, he says, the police are making easy arrests that don't involve investigation.

Five of the city's nine police districts have recorded more homicides this year than they had at this point in 1999, according to police data. The most violent area has been the Eastern District. Through last week, 47 people had been killed there. No other district had more than 25.

The swelling homicide rate reflects an increase in killings of juveniles. So far, 29 have been killed this year.

"It has never been this bad in terms of the sense of hopelessness among young people," says the Urban Institute's Miller, who has spent 15 years working with youths. "I don't think we understand the magnitude of the problem."

Sun staff writer Doug Donovan contributed to this article.

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