Frederick H. Bealefeld III has been doing police work for too many years to be giddy about the reported drop in murders in Baltimore. As the city's police commissioner, he can take a certain amount of credit for the apparent milestone: 50 murders in the first three months of this year, marking the lowest quarter in 23 years. But his guarded optimism about what the statistic means for Baltimore is a wise sentiment.
Since Mr. Bealefeld was tapped to lead the department in August, homicides have been declining. That's a promising sign that Mayor Sheila Dixon has pushed a sensible, realistic approach to policing violent crime. The coordinated law enforcement effort targets the most violent suspects, seeks to mediate community disputes and relies on federal prosecutions to send away the worst offenders - and it's having an impact. But in this deadly business, incremental progress is all we can expect right now. The hope is that steady progress will translate into sustained achievement.
The number of homicides and the rate of killing in the city have become the public's barometer of public safety since the 1990s, when murders exceeded 300 a year and Baltimore carried the undesirable tag of deadliest city in America. It's an unfair measure, but one that has stuck. City administrations, past and present, have focused money and manpower on reducing the murder rate, even as crime overall has dropped.
Mayor Dixon has taken a more holistic approach to stopping the violence, calling for an end to wholesale arrests for quality-of-life crimes and emphasizing community-based programs that focus on prevention. She has forged greater cooperation with the city's law enforcement partners to focus on the most violent offenders. And the city's drop in homicides was achieved with $5 million less spent on police overtime: The department spent $21.4 million on overtime between July 2007 and the end of last month, compared with $26.6 million between July 2006 and March 2007.
But fewer murders in one 90-day period won't make residents in the most crime-ridden neighborhoods feel safe enough to sit on their porches at dusk or walk their dogs at night. As days grow longer and daylight lingers, the city's fight to take violent criminals off the street will face the test of a hot Baltimore summer. Success should be measured over time, not one day at a time.