City doing better, but it still tops lists for arrests, jail crowding

Back in 2005, Baltimore police officers arrested so many people (108,447) that judges freed arrestees from the city's booking center because they couldn't get court hearings within the 24 hours required by law. The year ended with 269 homicides.

Three years later, a new police commissioner, armed with a new strategy of targeting only violent offenders instead of every offender, sent arrest numbers plummeting — to 83,439 in 2008 and 77,595 in 2009. The yearly homicide figures stood at 234 and 238, respectively.

The oddity, pointed out frequently by the city's top cop, is that his officers are arresting fewer people and still bringing crime and homicide numbers down to historic 30-year lows.

And they're doing it with less.

A budget crunch has threatened hundreds of jobs, and the department has slashed overtime from $31.6 million in 2007 to $14.2 million this year, even as shootings dropped 31 percent and homicides dropped 16 percent over that same time span. These gains come as morale sinks among the rank-and-file. They are worried about potential layoffs and loss of pension benefits, and that has hundreds more officers threatening to leave.

Here's the really sad part: Despite the glowing statistics, Baltimore remains one of the deadliest cities in the nation. In 2008, the city was No. 2 in per-capita homicides, behind only Detroit. (Baltimore claimed the top spot for a few weeks until the other city fessed up to failing to report dozens of killings.)

FBI crime statistics for 2009 released in May show Baltimore's ranking hasn't changed when compared with cities with more than 500,000 residents. Detroit still tops the list with 39.7 homicides per 100,000 people, with Baltimore a close second at 37.3. Washington is a distant third, at 23.8 (143 slayings with fewer than 600,000 residents).

And another recent study by the Pew Charitable Trust, using 2008 numbers, shows that even with the drop in arrests, Baltimore still has the nation's second-highest incarceration rate for the city jail, where suspects are detained pending trial.

The city is behind New Orleans, which according to the study had a jail rate of 7.76 per 1,000 residents. Baltimore's rate was 6.28. Philadelphia came in fourth with 5.72 and Washington sixth with 5.02. The Pew study, while exhaustive, focuses on examining the Philadelphia jail system and doesn't mention Baltimore other than in chart listings.

The Pew report noted that just as in Baltimore, Philadelphia's jail population began to decline over the past two years, which it credited not only to fewer arrests, but also to bringing cases to trial faster and better coordination among law enforcement agencies. And crime in Philadelphia, as in Baltimore, has dropped.

"To a large extent, the evidence in this report indicates that the size of the population of the Philadelphia Prison System is within the power of policy makers to control — without compromising the fight against crime," Pew researchers concluded. "It suggests that Philadelphia can have fewer people in jail, save money and be no less safe."

The report noted efforts by Philadelphia prosecutors to weed out weak and trivial cases early to avoid locking up people for extended periods and reducing the wait for trials and court hearings. The report also says hearings can be expedited using video conferencing so detainees don't have to be moved from building to building as much.

Many of these ideas have been implemented in Baltimore. The point Pew is trying to make is that the jail population can be controlled through better management, not just driven by arrests and crime. The mass arrests once seen in Baltimore got the city into trouble with lawsuits that are still being litigated concerning allegations of abuse and overcrowding, even though the policies that led to the suits are from two mayoral administrations ago.

Declining arrests coupled with declining crime seems a strange paradox. Baltimore Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III argues that it proves his officers are making smarter arrests, and that the strategy is working.

He trumpeted the figures of fewer arrests, lower crime and less funding at a recent budget hearing in which he asked city lawmakers to spare his agency further cuts. He bragged that his officers are, in fact, doing "more with less."

The trouble with doing more with less is that the bosses will think you can do even more with even less, and at some point the job becomes impossible.

Fire Chief James S. Clack believes his department is at that critical juncture: "I think we're operating at the very edge of what's safe right now," he told a Baltimore Sun reporter last week.

Likewise, Bealefeld has warned repeatedly that cutting his budget further would mean laying off officers just when they're starting to make real progress, and that it would take the city a decade to recover and get back to the crime numbers being posted now.

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