Shortly after he welcomed the city's newest class of officers with handshakes and pictures during a commencement ceremony yesterday, Baltimore Police Commissioner Leonard D. Hamm spoke glowingly of a recent decline in killings on the city streets those officers are to protect.
On Thursday, for the first time this year, the number of homicides was smaller than at the corresponding time last year, 115 compared with 117. In late April, there had been 12 more killings than in late April 2005, and violent crime was up 13 percent. The violent crime numbers are almost even now, Hamm said.
One of the biggest decreases over the past two months was in the Northern District, where violent crime was up 23 percent from January through mid-April but has dropped to 6 percent higher than last year's mark.
In Southeast Baltimore, where there was a 27 percent increase in property crimes - including residential burglaries - from January through April 15, the rate has dropped slightly, police said.
Sgt. Scott Serio of the Southeastern District said arrests have been made in more than 100 burglaries since April.
Hamm, in an interview yesterday, credited increased communication between police and residents, and initiatives the department has started. Among them were the shift of 30 officers from desk duty to street patrol and Friday night "all-outs," in which additional officers patrol neighborhoods by foot.
The department has also redeployed officers from the canine unit, the traffic team and the organized-crime team to high-crime areas and to patrol districts where repeat violent offenders live.
"When you have any kind of drop in crime, it really starts with the community," Hamm said. "It's the law-abiding citizens in this community willing to talk to you, willing to give you information, willing to trust you."
City Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr., who recently called for an investigation into the department's arrest policy, complaining that too many people are taken into custody on questionable charges, said he is "encouraged that the rate is going down."
He added, however, that he still had questions about the department's strategy and whether officers are making arrests based on quotas.
Hamm, addressing Harris' complaints publicly for the first time, defended his department's arrest record.
"I've spent a lot of time in the community and organizations in Councilman Harris' district," Hamm said. "The law-abiding citizens in the community are saying they want the police to enforce quality-of-life issues, and that's what we're doing.
"All we're doing is our job. I ask that my officers do it fairly, impartially and don't abuse their powers."
Some of the arrests have raised questions, including that of a Virginia couple who said they were arrested this year after getting lost in South Baltimore's Cherry Hill neighborhood and asking a police officer for directions.
"I can't talk about that because that is in litigation, but we looked into what the officer did, and the officer did not violate any rules or regulations of this agency and did not violate the law," Hamm said. "What I say to outsiders is: 'Wait to hear the whole story.'"