Killings drop in other cities amid mixture of strategies

For Cincinnati, 2006 was a very bad year - a record 83 homicides vaulted the Ohio city into eighth place among America's most murderous cities.

But instead of despairing, police and residents collaborated on a campaign to stem the rising violence with a combination of basic police work and innovative efforts to promote civil behavior.


By this weekend, Cincinnati (population 330,000) was finishing 2007 with just 63 slayings so far. And, while Baltimore struggles with a stubbornly high homicide rate, Boston and Philadelphia have also witnessed declines in lethal violence. Chicago and New York were on pace to finish with the fewest homicides in more than 40 years.

While murder and efforts to control it are always intensely local, experts believe that a combination of savvy policing and preventive efforts is paying off.


"There's relatively little city officials can do about the basic conditions that generate violent crime, such as homicide," says Richard Rosenfeld, a criminology professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. "But there are some things that can make a difference."

Police and community leaders are trying anything that has appeared to work elsewhere - with some new ideas of their own. The goal: to get a handle on homicides and other violent crimes, which have been climbing over the past few years after nearly a decade of decline.

Boston, for example, updated its Crime Stoppers hot line by allowing tipsters to send anonymous text messages from their cell phones. Chicago and other cities have mounted video surveillance cameras - already familiar to Baltimoreans - in high-crime neighborhoods. Cincinnati, meanwhile, put some of its beat cops on Segway electronic scooters. One even chased down a suspect fleeing on a unicycle.

Among experts, the jury is still out on how much these high-tech tools will help. But they say most cities making a dent in their homicides are updating and adapting successful approaches pioneered in the 1990s.

New York City was the model for one approach, called CompStat, which relies heavily on computer analyses to focus police attention on crime "hot spots." Baltimore adopted CompStat when Martin O'Malley became mayor.

Precision policing helped reduce homicides earlier this decade in Washington, D.C., according to its former police chief, Charles H. Ramsey, who was recently hired to run Philadelphia's force after being passed over for the top job in Baltimore.

"One of the things we were able to do in the almost nine years I was there was track crimes that lead to homicides - robberies, shootings and things of that nature - and focus on [making] arrests, [serving] warrants," Ramsey said of his tenure in Washington.

When violence erupted, he said, supervisors flooded the affected neighborhoods with officers.


"I didn't hesitate to call what we call a 'crime emergency' in D.C.," Ramsey recalled. That declaration enabled him to reassign officers and pay overtime to stretch the work force. The former chief argued that the all-out effort helped turn around a surge in homicides last year and give the district its lowest death toll in a quarter of a century.

Even this success was fleeting, however. Washington's homicide tally for 2007 was up again, proving that police need to apply continuous pressure and adjust tactics to changing circumstances, experts say.

Beyond mere policing, communities such as Cincinnati are also turning to "intervention," meaning programs to curb gang-related violence. Boston pioneered this approach, which has been the model for up to 60 cities across the country.

After determining that informal gangs of juveniles and young adults who hung out together accounted for 70 percent of Cincinnati's homicides, authorities summoned scores of them to the courthouse.

There, officials warned them to stop the violence on their own - or face a coordinated, relentless crackdown on their entire group from federal, state and local police.

"We had the mothers of murder victims stand up and talk," recalls Robin Engel, director of the Policing Institute at the University of Cincinnati, a partner in the effort.


The women urged the young men not to put their own mothers through the same experience, and Engel said she saw some of the members of the hardened audience look away with tears in their eyes.

More concretely, some of the gang leaders have responded to offers to help them find jobs and resolve conflicts peacefully. About 100 called in to inquire about the offer, she says, and about 70 are receiving help, with another 15 placed in jobs.

Another benefit of the initiative, Engel notes, is that it has helped rebuild the frayed trust between Cincinnati's police and minority communities.

It's not clear how much effect the Cincinnati Initiative to Reduce Violence has had on reducing homicides this year, says S. Gregory Baker, manager of police relations and the effort's director.

Police have also have launched a new unit targeting midlevel drug dealers and set up a 50-member "Vortex" squad to help the beat cops tamp down spates of violence.

Chicago's intervention effort, known as CeaseFire, also serves as a model for other cities, including Baltimore. Run by the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health, the program relies on former gang members and other "interrupters" to defuse minor tensions between individuals and groups before they escalate into violence.


"Someone left a party early, or someone took someone's snow shovel," explained Dr. Gary Slutkin, a university epidemiologist and executive director of the Chicago Project for Violence Prevention. "The major part of this isn't gang warfare. It's the normalization of violence," he added. CeaseFire is "about changing the norm and helping people see a little more clearly, instead of punishing them."

Unlike other intervention efforts, CeaseFire operates apart from law enforcement. Slutkin says that's the key to maintaining the trust of the people they're trying to influence.

Homicides and shootings have declined in nearly all 17 Chicago neighborhoods and other Illinois communities where CeaseFire operates, Slutkin said.

Still, not everyone is convinced. The Illinois auditor's office questioned CeaseFire's role in reducing crime this year, and the program's state funding was slashed.

But Slutkin says preliminary data he's seen from an independent assessment due in January validate the program.

Meanwhile, the long-running battle between backers of New York-style "zero-tolerance" policies and advocates of "community-oriented policing" has ended, essentially in a tie.


"It's a delicate balance between enforcement and building community trust," says Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Washington-based Police Executive Research Forum.

Another issue, often overlooked, is stability in the police department, says Sheldon Greenberg, director of the Johns Hopkins University's Division of Public Safety Leadership.

"What you're seeing in New York is a byproduct of doing things consistently many, many years," Greenberg says. "One of the things that absolutely weakens police departments is a constant barrage of change before things are allowed to pan out."

For the record

An article in Sunday's editions on how other cities are tackling homicides listed an incorrect total for Cincinnati in 2006. There were 89.The Sun regrets the error.