City's coordination in fighting crime is called into question

The Baltimore Sun

As Baltimore wrestles with a 15 percent increase in homicides this year, top officials from the city's police, parks and health departments told a City Council subcommittee yesterday they are working together to address crime.

But Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake, who called for yesterday's hearing in April, said she was disappointed with the administration's presentation and questioned whether its departments - while well-intentioned - are working together at all.

"I just don't feel comfortable that there is a coordinated plan," said Rawlings-Blake. "I don't think anyone would disagree with the fact that we're doing good things all over the city. But what I wanted to come out of this was a clear vision of how that coordinated effort was getting to the most vulnerable among us."

Mayor Sheila Dixon, meanwhile, is expected to hold a closed-door assembly today with 20 police officers from each of the city's police districts in an effort to communicate her crime strategy directly to rank-and-file officers. City officials - all of whom are facing an election this year - are searching for how to deal with a long-standing crime problem that is surging this year.

As of yesterday, there had been 144 killings so far this year, police said, up 19 from the same time last year - a count that puts the city on pace to exceed 300 homicides for the first time since 1999. Nonfatal shootings are up 37 percent.

Police Commissioner Leonard D. Hamm did not attend the hearing yesterday. Instead, Lt. Col. Richard Hite offered a presentation and Frederick H. Bealefeld III, deputy commissioner of operations, sat nearby and did not speak.

Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein, the city's health commissioner, told the committee that his department is working on several programs that identify youth who have been arrested for violent crimes to offer counseling and other services. One program, Operation Safe Kids, puts youths in contact with a case manager four times a week.

Connie A. Brown, director of the city's parks department, said that 14 city recreation centers will offer extended hours from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., starting this month.

Council members praised the programs but said the point of the hearing was to determine whether city departments are working together. Rawlings-Blake asked for a map showing the concentration of crime alongside the location of services, such as recreation centers. The subcommittee is expected to hold another session this summer.

Also last night, Rawlings-Blake and four council members met with about 85 rank-and-file officers in a closed-door session organized by the police union, said union President Paul Blair.

Recommendations such as adjusting officers' shifts to put more in troubled neighborhoods at peak times will be compiled by Rawlings-Blake's staff and presented to Dixon and Hamm, said Shaun Adamec, the council president's spokesman.

The meetings come days after Dixon reversed a short-lived policy that required homicide detectives to walk foot beats in high-crime areas on days when they would otherwise be solving crimes. In May, the mayor also backed down from an earlier decision to limit Police Department overtime. Newly released records show police overtime increased to $2.6 million in May - a 60 percent increase from April.

In the first 11 months of this fiscal year, police have spent $31.8 million on overtime, more than the $28.4 million spent at this point in the 2006 fiscal year - though much of that occurred last summer, when Gov. Martin O'Malley was mayor. The city's budget year starts July 1.

Records provided by the Police Department show that monthly overtime costs dropped below the previous year for the first time in January, when Dixon became mayor. This spring, Dixon repeatedly said that police "don't have a blank check" and vowed to curb overtime.

Sun reporter Gus G. Sentementes contributed to this article.

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