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Hamm takes each slaying personally

The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore police Commissioner Leonard Hamm is dying in increments.

"When the pager goes off and I look at the location of [a homicide]," Hamm said yesterday, "I know [the victims] are black men and I know the perps are black men. A little bit of me dies each time it happens - as a black man, as a father, as an uncle and also as a police commissioner."

Death was the topic yesterday when I spoke with Hamm at police headquarters. At the time we met, Baltimore's homicide count was 152 compared with 133 at the same time last year. At this pace, the city is on pace to reach 300 slayings for the first time since 1999. For Hamm, the death toll's steady rise is the equivalent of death on the installment plan.

The overwhelming majority of this year's victims are young black men. So are their killers. That concerns Hamm more than the calls for his resignation, which are now being voiced loudly. At least two mayoral candidates, one city councilman and one former police commissioner have called for Hamm to step down. But Hamm is savvy enough to know that this is an election year and that the real target of the criticism is Mayor Sheila Dixon, not him.

With the dispute about Marcus Brown, the former deputy police commissioner of operations, swirling around him and with allegations about his lack of leadership, Hamm still agreed to an interview. He didn't address the Brown issue. But he was willing to talk about crime and crime plans, and even about the lack of crime plans.

Hamm is a veteran cop with 35 years' experience. He remembers what passed for a crime plan when he was a patrolman.

"There wasn't any crime plan," the commissioner said. "You got in your car, got out on the streets and worked your area."

Hamm also talked about the rising numbers of homicides and what he - or any police commissioner, for that matter - can do about them.

"Any leader who's gonna run this police agency is going to have to do the same things I'm doing," Hamm said. Those things are encouraging citizen involvement in fighting crime, cooperation with more state agencies and "targeted enforcement," which might be considered fancy police jargon meaning "go get the bad guys."

There are bad guys aplenty in this town. Hamm talked about one of them, a man recently arrested who has been charged with killing two people in West Baltimore and one in Southeast Baltimore. Hamm said police have determined the same gun was used in those three killings and two shootings in another part of the city.

"We've found out it's not so much geography anymore," Hamm said. "Our bad guys are mobile."

Mobile and, in some cases, very young.

Hamm said that as of yesterday, Baltimore had 15 juvenile homicides. This time last year, that figure was 13. The number of nonfatal shootings of juveniles as of June 26, 2006, was 36.

This year, there have been 64.

"It's young people with guns who are driving this whole thing," Hamm said, adding that part of his strategy has been to set up a trace unit to track where juveniles are getting these weapons. Hamm said police have confiscated 1,600 guns this year, compared with 1,500 for the same period in 2006. Just last week, Hamm said, cops bagged 66 weapons.

Gangs are also part of the problem.

"Not only are rival gangs - Bloods, Crips, BGF [Black Guerilla Family] killing each other," Hamm said. "We find they're killing members of their own sets." The reasons, Hamm added, are the old standbys: drugs and territory.

I asked Hamm if he has any idea why more juveniles have been killed and shot this year than last year. His answer was revealing.

"I really don't know," the commissioner responded.

The one public official in this town who simply answers "I don't know" when he doesn't know the answer to a question is the very one folks want to resign. He's the one we should keep. Hamm's critics don't know the answer to that question any more than he does. And at least Hamm was able to explain why he doesn't know.

"We are not far along enough in this trend," Hamm said. "I think that's something the sociologists are going to have to take a look at."

Those sociologists would be taking a look at the effects of a sociological disaster not of Leonard Hamm's making, but one that started long before he even thought about being police commissioner of Baltimore. That disaster more than likely involves fatherless homes, drug-addicted parents and their ticked-off progeny who have now reached gun-totin' age.

And that's killing people like Hamm one homicide at a time.


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