As the number of killings in Baltimore dipped last year to its lowest level in decades, one trend remained constant: Those accused of killing and their victims had been in and out of the criminal justice system.
More than 90 percent of the 71 people arrested on murder charges and 80 percent of the 196 people who were slain last year had criminal records, according to Baltimore police statistics released Monday. More than half the suspects had previous gun arrests, and four in 10 were on parole or probation.
"It is further evidence that violence sticks to violence," said city police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi, noting that the trend has been steady for years. "The vast number of cases that we deal with are bad guys versus bad guys. What we have to do is put those people behind bars."
These numbers helped compose a portrait of violence on city streets in 2011, which according to police showed double-percentage point drops in several categories.
Many of last year's statistics remained virtually unchanged from years past. The overwhelming number of victims, 183, were black, as were the suspects, 66. More than half the victims were between the ages 18 and 29, and 181 were male. Handguns continued to be the choice of murder weapon, in 149 killings.
Most people, 112, were killed on public streets. Police didn't uncover a motive in 156 homicides, though they said most involved drugs or people connected to the drug business. Twelve people were killed in robberies, 11 during arguments and six in domestic disputes.
The number of juveniles killed went up from 12 in 2010 to 14 last year, but was significantly lower than the 27 slain in 2007. Overall, Baltimore saw the fewest number of killings since 1977. The number of people fatally stabbed jumped 16 percent from 2010, with 32 last year.
Finishing with fewer than 200 killings was a symbolic threshold for city leaders, who last reached a similar milestone — under 300 — in 2000. Overall, police say violent crime in the city was down 6 percent, gun-related killings were down 13 percent and nonfatal shootings were down 9 percent. Property crime, including burglaries, rose 4 percent.
"We can't celebrate and say victory is here, the war is over," said Guglielmi, the police spokesman, referring to the violent crime drop. He said Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III plans this year to focus on guns coming into Maryland from other states.
One of the biggest concerns for authorities is the steady rate of repeat offenders who become statistics on both ends of the gun violence. Bealefeld has pointed to the case of 35-year-old Stanley Brunson, a convicted drug felon who was shot in 2003 and shot again last month, and then arrested Saturday and charged with killing a man in Rosemont.
Bealefeld has called Brunson "an engine for violent crime."
A study in 1999 by a Harvard University criminologist found that the average homicide suspect in Baltimore had been arrested 9.6 times before being charged with murder. The typical victim didn't fare much better, with an average of 8.5 arrests before being killed.
Charles Wellford, a criminal justice professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, said he analyzed killings in New Orleans from last year and came up with "the exact same findings."
He said 85 percent of the victims had criminal records as did 90 percent of the suspects. "And they didn't just have criminal records," Wellford said. "They had records of violence and guns. The message is the obvious: We know how and who to focus police efforts on to reduce homicides."
Noting significant reductions in killings in several cities, notably New York and Washington, Wellford said police have learned to identify and even predict the predators who are likely to kill and be killed.
He said that as the number of killings drops and the pool of potential victims and suspects narrows, clearance rates of homicide cases will rise. But that clearance rate can lag behind the reduction in killings, he said
noting that Baltimore police have made arrests in fewer than half of last year's homicides, down from several years ago.
Gov. Martin O'Malley, a former mayor of Baltimore, credited the state's Violence Prevention Initiative with helping to reduce the city's homicide numbers. Launched in 2007, it singles out people authorities believe are the worst of the worst criminal offenders for heightened attention by parole and probation agents.
About 2,200 people are targeted each month in the program, 1,300 in Baltimore. The high percentage of suspects and victims already involved in crime proves the premise, state officials say, and the declining homicide numbers show efforts are working.
"Every level of law enforcement has been getting better at using effective tactics and strategies to go after known violent officers," O'Malley said in an interview Monday. He said the VPI program helped parole and probation agents and corrections officers "see themselves as crime-fighting entities, and not as some sort of second-tier social service agencies."
"It's long been true that a relatively small number of people are responsible for the vast majority of really violent crime," O'Malley said. "Over the past 10 years, we've gotten a little better at stripping away the anonymity of these violent predators."
Baltimore's 2011 killings
Strangulation or suffocation: 4
On street: 112
In home: 33
In vehicle: 17
In alley: 13
In parking lot: 7
In business: 6
In park or public area: 4
In vacant house: 3
In public housing: 1
Child abuse: 3
Under 10: 3
Victims shot in head
2007: 86 out of 232 (37 percent)
2008: 103 out of 191 (54 percent)
2009: 116 out of 196 (59 percent)
2010: 84 out of 168 (50 percent)
2011: 72 out of 150 (48 percent)
2007: 20 out of 282 (7 percent)
2008: 19 out of 234 (8 percent)
2009: 22 out of 238 (9 percent)
2010: 24 out of 221 ( 11 percent)
2011: 32 out of 196 (16 percent)
Source: Baltimore Police Department, Homicide Analysis