Annapolis leaders were frustrated, and residents were growing angry: After a record eight homicides in 2007, five people were killed in the state capital in the first three months of this year. Community groups mobilized to protest, one alderwoman suggested bringing in the National Guard and the mayor considered a youth curfew.
But yesterday, police announced that violent crime dropped 18 percent in the first half of 2008 compared with last year, a sharp turnaround that began in April with the naming of a new police chief. There has only been one homicide since March. And despite the outcry, the drop continues a trend of decreasing crime in Annapolis that began early last year.
"It's a work in progress, but we're happy so far," said Chief Michael A. Pristoop, a retired Baltimore police commander who now lives in Annapolis. "The reduction in violent offenses, specifically, demonstrates a positive trend that we hope to continue."
From Jan. 1 through June 30, robberies and aggravated assaults fell 22 percent and 19 percent, respectively, over the same period last year, and there were fewer shootings. Auto thefts also declined, though a 21 percent rise in thefts - the largest category of serious crimes in any given year - caused total crimes to climb 6.6 percent.
Statistics show that all categories of crime started the year on an upswing. The overall drop in violent crime was fueled by strong improvements in the second quarter, when Pristoop, then chief of the Maryland Department of General Services police, was named the interim police chief.
Pristoop implemented a number of strategic changes, such as assigning senior commanders to street duty during periods of peak crime, increasing patrols around "hot spot" problem areas and creating a street enforcement unit consisting of canine, drug enforcement, intelligence, traffic and foot patrol teams.
Through the state's Capital City Safe Streets program, which seeks to establish Annapolis as a crime-fighting model, the city now uses crime-mapping technology and has improved communication with agencies such as the Department of Parole and Probation. Many of that program's initiatives are in the works.
"We'll have even better things to bring to the table" as more program funds are spent, Pristoop said.
By the time a consultant group - commissioned last fall to study the city's crime and the Police Department - presented its findings to the council in June, most of its recommendations had been carried out. A nationwide search for a permanent police chief was subsequently called off, and Pristoop was named to the position July 28.
Stanford Erickson, co-chairman of Annapolitans United Against Crime, a new group that has lobbied city and state officials for more crime-fighting resources, said yesterday that he has observed a noticeable increase in police presence, which he credited in part with the reduction in crime.
"With the new police chief and the new attitude of zeroing in on crime where crime takes place, it looks like progress is being made," Erickson said. "We see the police on the street walking. We've called the chief himself on a couple of things, and he returned the phone calls. He's been very proactive."
Not all residents are pleased with some of the tactics employed by police. Carl O. Snowden, a former city alderman who leads the state attorney general's office of civil rights, said he has received complaints from residents that the police and the city housing authority are improperly banning people from public housing communities.
Trespassing stops have resulted in numerous arrests for drug possession, but some of those banned from public housing say they have a constitutional right or even court orders allowing them to visit relatives. Snowden has asked the city attorney to evaluate the banning policies.
"If crime has dropped in Annapolis and [in] public housing in particular, that should be applauded. On another hand, we have to make sure the constitutional rights and civil rights that people enjoy are protected," Snowden said.
Crime in the state capital, which has about 36,000 residents, has often been as much about perception as reality. During last year's march to a record number of homicides, Mayor Ellen O. Moyer often noted that crime was down. Year-end statistics showed major crime had dropped nearly 10 percent from 2006.
But a spate of high-profile crimes, including a double homicide in January and the killing of a 17-year-old in the Robinwood public housing community in March, kept the focus on crime. Four of the homicides remain unsolved.
Alderman David H. Cordle Sr., chairman of the council's public safety committee, said the jump in homicides pushed the issue of crime to the forefront, leading to a convergence of attention from city and state leaders.
"It's a combination of listening to the community, new strategies, fresh ideas and targeting these high-crime areas," Cordle said. "They're doing a lot more enforcement of the smaller-type things, which lead to the bigger things on occasion. ... I think the message is being heard: 'Don't do it here. '"
Frederick M. Paone, a longtime county prosecutor who won a seat on the council late last year, in part by campaigning as a tough-on-crime candidate, said while the chief and his new strategies deserve a wealth of the credit for decreasing crime, the entire community has stepped up to help solve the problem.
"There's an increased vigilance on the part of an awful lot of people," Paone said. "When the anger on the part of the community boils up, you're going to see a decrease. People have had it. They're fed up."
Erickson said there was more to be done, including installing closed-circuit cameras in all of Annapolis' public housing communities.
"We're willing to be patient," Erickson said. "We see progress. All we wanted was progress."