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Violence moves mayor, others to seek solutions

The Baltimore Sun

Twelve days ago, Mayor Sheila Dixon called this year's spike in homicides unacceptable, vowed to free up money for police overtime to help address the problem and - after a week in which 17 city residents were shot - declared that violence in Baltimore "has to stop."

Since then, 15 people have been killed, adding to one of the most violent periods Baltimore has witnessed in years and prompting candidates in this year's mayoral race to prepare their own ideas for a problem whose solution has eluded City Hall for years.

Whether the escalating homicide count is part of a nationwide trend or caused by battles over street corners here in Baltimore, violent crime is shaping up to be an explosive issue - especially if the city continues on pace to exceed 300 murders this year.

As of yesterday, 128 people had been killed in Baltimore this year compared with 113 at the same time last year. By late May, meanwhile, the number of shootings had climbed to 303, up 35 percent.

Dixon, who has been in office four months, shifted away from the zero-tolerance policing of past mayors. She is focusing more attention on individual violent criminals, adding foot patrols and expanding city services to troubled neighborhoods - all part of a larger effort to prevent crime before it happens.

"For me, it's how do we begin to teach people to respect lives," said Dixon, who became mayor when Martin O'Malley was sworn in as governor and who is running for election this year. "It's something that we're going to have to do together."

A political issue

But her political opponents, including City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. and Del. Jill P. Carter, argue that Dixon has done little to address the underlying issues causing crime. Mitchell expects to release his crime plan this week and Carter said she will have a proposal ready by the end of the month.

"You can't have a cleaner and greener city unless you have a safer and smarter city," said Mitchell, swiping at a portion of Dixon's platform in which she has vowed to do a better job cleaning city streets and alleys. "There's no real innovation in terms of effective policing."

Crime in Baltimore became a political issue last year when then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. questioned the city's murder count under O'Malley's mayoral administration. O'Malley was elected mayor in 1999, in part, on a promise to reduce the number of murders to 175. The closest he got was in 2002, when there were 253 killings. The number has since crept back up and hit 275 last year.

Data released yesterday by the federal government showed the city had 276 homicides in 2006 - one higher than city police had previously reported. A police spokesman said that state police, in reviewing data submitted to federal authorities, added to the total a shooting that has been ruled justified.

Dixon presented her crime strategy April 30. Broadly, it called for greater attention on what police say is the small number of offenders who are causing most of the violence. Police have relied more on call-ins, in which prior offenders are threatened with federal prosecution. Dixon has also promoted a program called Operation Protect, in which police block off access to certain neighborhoods and flood those blocks with extra officers and city services.

Two neighborhoods are taking part in the program, one in Park Heights and the other near McElderry Park. A spokesman for the administration said that two more neighborhoods will be named within two weeks.

Overtime policy

Early in her term, Dixon cut Police Department overtime, an expense that has consistently come in over budget. On May 24, as violent crime continued to rise, the mayor seemed to reverse that position, arguing that a limited amount of what the administration calls "targeted" overtime should be permitted - though Dixon has not said how much money will be freed up.

Starting yesterday, all officers assigned to special investigative units or administrative positions will be assigned to walk a beat one day per week, Wednesday through Sunday, on the 4 p.m. to midnight shift, a Dixon spokesman said. Overtime will also be spent to deploy one sergeant and five additional officers to each district and public housing properties, the spokesman said.

In all, 85 additional officers will be walking through the city each day, the spokesman said.

Discussion over this year's murder rate comes as the FBI releases its preliminary crime data for 2006, which showed Baltimore's murder rate surpassed all of the nation's largest cities except Detroit. Violent crime, which also includes rapes, assaults and other crimes, was down in 2006 compared with 2005, a decline police said continues this year.

The data show that crime has increased in other medium-sized cities across the country. Carter, a Northwest Baltimore delegate who is running for mayor, said she believes part of Baltimore's problem is that residents do not trust the police enough to feel safe reporting crime when they witness it. Carter was among the most vocal critics of the arrests that were made under O'Malley's administration.

Carter called for more foot patrols, especially between 11 p.m. and 8 a.m. She also suggested the city should do a better job monitoring police cameras or divert the money that is being spent on those cameras to more patrols or better lighting instead.

"There's not a quick fix," Carter said. "It's almost like the message that has been sent is that this is acceptable."

Sun reporter Annie Linskey contributed to this report.

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