Statistics tell a violent story that we've heard before

The Baltimore Sun

The "Homicide Victim and Suspect Analysis Report 2008" is a clinical dissection of violent death in Baltimore - a grim tally stripped of tears, blood and anger.

It comes as no surprise that 186 people were killed with handguns and 137 people were killed on the streets (that doesn't include the dozen killed in alleys). All but 20 of the 234 victims were black and all but 31 were male. Among the slain, 126 were shot in the head.

Of the 107 people arrested on murder charges last year, 94 had prior criminal records - most for drugs, guns and violent crime. Thirty-six were under the supervision of state parole and probation when they were arrested. All but six were black and all but 16 were male.

Of the 234 victims, 194 had prior criminal records - most for drugs, guns and violent crime. Eighty were under the supervision of state parole and probation when they were killed.

Sadly, these numbers don't differ much from years past.

We know the people who are being killed, and we know the people who are doing the killing.

The frustrating part is that we can't seem to stop it.

It's far more complicated than locking people up and throwing away the key, though authorities push for stiff prison sentences for gun offenders and closely watch them when they're released from prison to make sure they don't violate the terms of their probation.

"There are a lot of challenges," said Sheryl Goldstein, head of the Mayor's Office on Criminal Justice, who is trying to get judges to stop handing out suspended sentences in gun cases. "We're not saying that everyone needs to go to jail forever, but there is this small group of high-risk offenders. The police are taking them seriously. Parole and probation is taking them seriously."

Baltimore finished 2008 with 234 slayings. That's better than the 282 in 2007 and much better than the record 353 in 1993.

City leaders are pleased with the reduction, as they should be. But we're still outraged, or at least should be, by the number of killings in a city of just over 630,000 people.

My question is how low the numbers have to get to become an acceptable part of city life. Is it 200? Is it the 175 that our former mayor and now governor once promised? Or, after a solid decade of more than 300 killings in the 1990s, is the 250 to 280 range the newly established norm?

There were 2,262 slayings in New York City in 1990. This year ended with roughly 513 (the latest figure was as of Dec. 28). Authorities there held a celebratory news conference and issued a news release with headlines: "City Has Had Fewer Than 600 Murders Seven Years Running; City on Track for Second-Lowest Ever Number of Murders Since Comparable Records Have Been Kept; Despite Economic Slowdown, Crime Continues to Fall in Every Borough."

Baltimore leaders held no such event. Even with our decline, the city's per-capita murder rate remains among the highest in the nation, and 234 killings is nothing to brag about.

Terrence P. McLarney has been with the Baltimore Police Department for 32 years, much of it spent in the homicide unit. He's now the major in charge of more than 70 officers, including 48 detectives who he says are the ones who "are on the street when a body drops."

Drugs have always been at the center of murders in Baltimore, but now, unlike when McLarney was a sergeant in the early 1990s, there are added problems of gang warfare and witness intimidation. Getting someone to talk is far more difficult than it once was, though the major stressed that "there is still a whole bunch of people who talk to us. We go through a neighborhood and knock on doors, and we're pleasantly surprised."

Curtailing murder and understanding why it occurs is a complicated task that has to include discussions about social ills, the lack of drug treatment, the prevalence of addiction, the desperate actions of impoverished citizens, teen pregnancy, unwed mothers and fathers who are more likely to be in prison or absent than raising their children.

A big part of preventing homicides is getting the people who kill off the streets.

The unit's clearance rate (meaning arrests) was 46.2 percent last year. That number includes 31 arrests made for killings in previous years. Nearly one-third of the homicide unit has 15 or fewer months of experience in investigating slayings, though McLarney says even the young detectives paid their dues investigating rapes, burglaries and nonfatal shootings, though he admits he is not happy with the clearance rate.

And the major says that homicide cases that can't go down with an arrest for murder get passed to the feds as drug conspiracy cases and result in lengthy prison terms. Those don't show up on the clearance board. "We don't just throw up our hands and say, 'Oh well, let's move on to the next one,' " McLarney said.

The homicide unit used to be elite and insular. Now, McLarney said, detectives are quick to brief other commanders after a killing so they can deploy officers to prevent retaliation or other crime. "District commanders are going crazy asking what will come next," the major said.

Hopefully the "Homicide Victim and Suspect Analysis Report 2008" will help us all avoid repeating the stats in 2009.

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