City homicides at 23-year low

The Baltimore Sun

Constance Fowler sees a change when it comes to crime-fighting in Baltimore. For her, it's not about police overtime or broad shifts in policy, but about the police who show up at her neighborhood association meetings every month.

"They're out there getting in the community. They will stop and talk with you if you flag them down or, if you need them, they're there for you," said Fowler, president of the Carrollton Ridge Community Association in Southwest Baltimore. "They want to free us from what we had through the years before."

Something has changed. Compared to the same time last year, homicides were down 30 percent in the first three months of 2008 and shootings declined 31 percent. Last year began as the most violent in more than a decade, but the first quarter of 2008 was Baltimore's least deadly since 1985.

City and state officials caution that it's too early to extrapolate much, but they say the trends are encouraging and point to a host of factors that they believe have made a difference.

"It really has a lot to do with the strategy that we put in place, where the focus is very targeted on the violent offenders," said Mayor Sheila Dixon, echoing a message that her administration has sounded since taking office last year. "People are seeing as a result some small success, and ... it's giving people a sense of hope and encouragement."

In the neighborhoods, though, many say they don't believe anything has changed or that they figure it won't keep up.

Edith Jordan, 67, and Phyllis Green, 58, residents of the McCulloh Homes in West Baltimore, said they still have to get all their errands done during daylight because they are afraid to go out at night.

Jordan said she feels the public housing complex has become a little safer since the installation of security cameras. But Green jumped in: "It ain't safe up there. They still have shootouts. They shoot in the daytime as well as the nighttime."

Stanley Wood, 53, who lives in Northwest Baltimore, said he doesn't see the police doing any good.

"Seems like they jump on the people who ain't doing nothing but not the people who are doing something," Wood said.

That's exactly the opposite of the city's current crime-fighting strategy. In a move away from the zero-tolerance policy pursued when Gov. Martin O'Malley was mayor, city police have shifted to a more targeted strategy under Dixon, a move that officials say is bolstered by better coordination among federal, state and local authorities and enables them to identify potentially violent criminals and lock them up before they kill.

Now, police and prosecutors work together to identify possible violent offenders - such as probationers or registered gun offenders - and attempt to arrest them for whatever they can.

Even small offenses, such as a violation of open container laws, can lead to a probation violation. Prosecutors, police and the Mayor's Office on Criminal Justice, which streamlines communication between the agencies, are updating one another on individual cases.

"We have a strategy, and everybody is on the same page as to what that strategy is," said Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy. "That strategy is to prioritize the arrests, the prosecution and the conviction of violent and repeat offenders."

City leaders praised the Police Department's 200-member Violent Crime Impact Division, which has been responsible for coordinating the effort and focusing more attention on gun crimes.

"There's much greater alignment and much better cooperation and coordination at every level of your government - federal, state and local," said O'Malley, who has shifted strategy in the Department of Parole and Probation to concentrate more on monitoring potentially violent offenders.

It was the sour personal relationship between O'Malley and Jessamy that many blamed for the lack of communication between Police Department and prosecutors for years.

Despite the recent improvements, Baltimore remains one of the most violent cities in the country per capita. And when rape, robbery, burglary and other major offenses are included, crime is down only 3 percent, according to police statistics.

Further, the city has faced several high-profile crimes in recent weeks, including the case of a Montgomery County man who is charged with drowning his three children in a Baltimore hotel.

But Steven Cager, 59, a West Baltimore resident who transports the disabled for a group home company, said he thinks some drug corners have improved - such as Fayette and Monroe and Edmondson and Pulaski - but wonders if the problem has just been moved elsewhere.

"I do think it dropped down some," said Cager, adding that he has been drug-free for 13 years. "There's drugs here, but it's not as much as it used to be."

Many attribute the reduction in killings to the new police commissioner, Frederick H. Bealefeld III, and the team he has brought in to lead the department. Morale, generally, seems to have improved in the department, and the pace of killings fell immediately after he took over in July.

For his part, Bealefeld is hesitant to celebrate. He said he is optimistic about the city's ability to maintain the slower pace into the summer but that it will take all agencies working together to make the reduction stick.

"We captured the attention of people here. There's a reason to be optimistic," he said. "It's amazing how you can paddle the boat when everybody's got an oar in the water and they're all going in the same direction."

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