AS THE CLOCK ticks down the end of another year, Baltimore's homicide tally keeps mounting with deadly momentum - 266 victims as of Tuesday - rising to who knows how many by Dec. 31, but almost certainly more than last year's total of 271.

The city's annual homicide count has declined from the heights recorded a decade ago - 353 in 1993, 322 in 1995 - but gone is the optimism that accompanied a toll of slightly more than 250 as the new century began and then-new Mayor Martin O'Malley was pledging that the number would soon be down to 175.

Instead, Baltimore is one of a handful of urban areas that have seen their homicide rate remain stubbornly high even as the nation - including most of its big cities - has seen a huge reduction in killing.

Speculation on the reasons for Baltimore's persistent homicide epidemic are probably as abundant as the many experts available to comment on the situation.

"Since 1991, the [national] homicide rate has dropped farther and faster than probably any other time in U.S. history, certainly since 1900" when reliable statistics become available, says Gary Lafree, a professor in the department of criminology at the University of Maryland, College Park. "It's actually kind of remarkable. But Baltimore has not benefited from this huge decline."

Some blame mistakes made by former police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier, a nationally renowned reformer who emphasized community policing during his almost six years in the job, but whose rotation policy stripped the city's homicide division of many of its veteran members.

"One of the most damaging periods in the history of the Police Department was when Frazier was commissioner," says David Simon, a former police reporter for The Sun who wrote the books Homicide about Baltimore's homicide unit and The Corner about the drug trade. "He destroyed what was probably the most functional homicide units on the East Coast."

Others note that in the first five-year term of O'Malley - who publicly feuded with Frazier while on the City Council - law enforcement changes have verged on chaotic: four police commissioners in five years.

"You cannot accomplish anything of substance if the players in the decision-making positions change every six weeks," says Sheldon Greenberg, head of the Police Executive Leadership Program at the Johns Hopkins University. "One of the things a police department needs most is stability that can lead to a sense of purpose or mission."

Then there are the open fights between the city police and the state's attorney's office over who takes the blame for the failure to put accused murderers behind bars - as well as finger-pointing at the U.S. attorney for not taking a more aggressive approach to federal gun prosecutions.

"In both Boston and Philadelphia [where homicides declined drastically], you had a concerted effort by the entire criminal justice system to work together, to cooperate to turn the city around," says Jeffrey Ian Ross, a criminologist at the University of Baltimore.

Says Greenberg: "There is no excuse for police officials criticizing prosecutors the way they have. They are all in it together. For the sake of a few minutes worth of political gain, they are destroying a relationship critical to crime resolution."

But for every proponent of a police crime-fighting strategy leading to a drop in homicide rates, there are studies saying that such police actions have little effect, that these killings rise and fall on deeper tides that are more difficult to influence within urban societies.

Many point to a crime-fighting success as one of the roots of Baltimore's high homicide rate.

"I don't have any empirical data, it is purely anecdotal, but years ago, the drug trade in Baltimore was run essentially by a handful of people," says Jerome Deise, who teaches at the University of Maryland School of Law. "Everybody who was involved in the drug scene knew who these folks were, knew who ran the drug market.

"Then the feds came in and were extremely proud of the fact that they put these principals in jail," says Diese, who encounters many accused drug dealers in his work at the law school's legal clinic. "The problem was that created a vacuum in the market. Essentially, that allowed the situation to occur where you've got all these young punks with access to guns, fighting not for control of the city, but fighting for corners."

It is in the deadly chaos of the drug trade that most of Baltimore's homicides occur.

"Murders in the city are overwhelmingly drug trade assassinations," says Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, the city health commissioner.

He says that few of Baltimore's homicide victims are innocent bystanders caught in the crossfire.

A study for previous Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke of adult homicides and a more recent one of juvenile homicides for O'Malley found the same thing, Beilenson said. The victims, almost all male, were shot several times at close range by someone they were acquainted with who wielded a large-caliber handgun, not the cheap .22-caliber Saturday night specials blamed for urban killings a couple of decades ago.

Role of drug trade

"Baltimore is actually a very safe city if you are not involved in the drug trade," Beilenson says. "If you are involved, it is one of the most dangerous in the United States."

He is not sure how many people are in that trade. The estimate is that that there are 50,000 to 55,000 illicit drug users in the city, but most are not dealing. "My wild guess would be maybe 10,000," Beilenson says. "Certainly in the thousands."

He agrees that the lack of organization in the drug trade is a major factor in Baltimore's persistently high homicide rate.

"You have many, many more loose-knit gangs and few major ones," he says. "Once it was very clear where the line of demarcation was, so there was actually less violence. Now there are hundreds of drug crews. Every few corners there is a different crew. That means there is much more opportunity for turf to be fought over."

Simon, who produces the police series The Wire for HBO, is skeptical that this is the reason for Baltimore's continuing high number of killings. He says this change happened in every major city where the drug of choice moved from heroin to cocaine two decades ago.

"What coke did is make it the day of the amateur for everyone in the trade, not just in Baltimore," he says. "Whatever discipline there was to the drug trade, when it was centered around the professional and very organized distribution of heroin, died with cocaine."

Failure to prosecute

Instead, Simon contends, the failure to prosecute killers after the turmoil in the homicide unit increased the number of killers on those Baltimore drug corners and entrenched the culture of violence there.

More important, Simon and others note, is that the rising economic tide of the 1990s that lifted so many boats was not as strong in Baltimore.

Simon credits New York's Wall Street-driven economic boom in the 1990s for its plummeting homicide rate, noting that you can go to corners that were drug markets 20 years ago and find an expensive restaurant. With 8 million people, New York should end this year with fewer than 600 homicides, down from 2,245 in 1990.

"If you have high unemployment and continuing drug abuse, those are two factors that on a macro level are connected to violent crime," says Ralph Taylor, a criminologist at Temple University who has studied violence in Baltimore. "If those stubborn background factors are not getting better, it is pretty hard for the murder rate to go down."

Simon says a continuing lack of good jobs in Baltimore means that "kids are being raised as fodder for the drug culture.

"The school system is inheriting a certain population, generation after generation of children who know that a high school degree from a Baltimore City school is not that great of a deal," he says. "These kids are not fools in the sense that they know what factory is hiring in town. The Bethlehem Steel of their generation is the drug trade."

Focus on the young

Beilenson says his department - along with many other state and city agencies - focuses on these youngsters in a program called Operation Safe Kids. It identifies through arrest records teenagers who are statistically likely to end up as murder victims and brings an array of social services into their lives.

Among these teens there is "a lack of tremendous respect for life in part because of a tremendous amount of depression and post-traumatic stress syndrome," Beilenson says. "That's not to justify what they do, but to try to understand it."

Beilenson says many of these young men come out of homes that are so dysfunctional they can hardly be described as families, often because of generations of drug abuse, violence and prison. Most do not think that they will live past age 25. They don't look to the drug trade for a lot of money, just enough to buy some tennis shoes, maybe get their girlfriend some jewelry, to enjoy the short life they expect.

"These kids don't see much opportunity down the road," he says. "Their depression makes a big difference. It means they have no oomph to get up and get out and do something about their circumstances."

Beilenson says more drug treatment is needed to reduce the demand for drugs, decreasing the lure of that industry, along with programs that work to get these young people on the right track.

Michael Lindsay, who teaches at the University of Maryland School of Social Work, agrees. He says he has seen success with programs that show youngsters there are other ways than violence to resolve disputes.

"We develop prevention intervention with kids to help them to see that they have a choice in the matter, that they can control themselves," Lindsay says. "Though the environment rewards them for being hyper-masculine, the have to realize that some of those behaviors can be self-defeating.

"It's not enough to just build more prisons or shore up police forces," he says. "If you can make an impact on these kids, you stand some chance of saving their lives."

"They see so much loss, people killed, losing their lives for senseless reason, you kind of have a sense of hopelessness," Lindsay says. "For a lot of kids, they see people killed in their neighborhoods and nothing done about it. To the larger world, seemingly that death doesn't mean anything. That translates to them individually as 'Maybe my life doesn't mean anything.'"

No magic cure

All who have studied Baltimore's homicide problem agree that there is no magic cure.

In that sense, the city's homicide addiction is analogous to an epidemic like AIDS; no one pill can cure it, but a cocktail of treatments might reduce the toll.

The best to be hoped for, experts say, is that the homicide number can be pushed lower over time with a combination of better policing, better court work, better social services and better economic opportunities, applied consistently and persistently.

"When crime and violence is part of a long-standing pattern, communities have a tendency to get comfortable with it," says Ross of the University of Baltimore. "People may not like that, but it's a habit that is tough to break."

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