As Baltimore crime declines, officials seek to change perception

By any measure, statistics show crime has been dropping in Baltimore. Yet many residents, like Vincent McCoy, say they don't feel it.

"I wouldn't put money on it," cracked McCoy as he stood outside of the Belair Road church where he is a deacon. "I've seen the city when it was good, I've seen it when it was bad, and I don't see when it's getting any better."

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake joined police officials Tuesday to tout the city's success against crime during the first six months of 2014. She acknowledged that perception lags behind reality — an image problem she says officials are working to change.

Shootings and killings spiked last year after consecutive years of declines, but that level of mayhem now appears to have been an aberration. Halfway through 2014, the city's homicide rate has returned to where it was in 2010, and the number of killings is the lowest in three decades.

Shootings are down considerably — more than 20 percent — from the same point last year, statistics show, and total reported crime is down 10 percent this year. Still, as other cities have also seen declines, Baltimore remains one of the most violent cities in the country.

"In order for [an] individual to feel the difference, it's going to take time," Rawlings-Blake said at the event in Northeast Baltimore. "Every time there's a patrol going on, that person is not going to see every patrol. The years of the experience they have is going to take time to repair."

Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts noted the drop in homicides but said he was unsatisfied. The current rate is "not where I'm comfortable, nor where I think we should be," he said.

Batts said police have been circulating intelligence more quickly and have seen success in areas they have targeted this year with heavier patrols. In the crime zone that encompasses Belair-Edison, Batts said, there has been a 29 percent reduction in violent crime, with no homicides and no shootings.

The commissioner said cutting violent crime allows police to focus on the quality-of-life issues about which residents are most likely to complain — such as loitering and trash, which are the types of things that also affect perceptions of crime.

He wants to continue to increase foot patrols across the city.

"Clearly, the numbers are down, but the perception is what we have to attack next," he said.

Though McCoy, the church deacon, and others are unconvinced of a drop in crime, some say they can feel a difference.

In Belair-Edison, a rebounding middle-class neighborhood, most homes have well-kept lawns and decorated porches. Car bumper stickers boast of honors students. A sign on a potted plant declares its owner "a Belair-Edison farmer." There is also gang graffiti on one house.

Kevin Johnson, 42, swept trash out of a gutter at the corner of Clarence and Erdman avenues. He said the city had cleaned out an alley recently, and neighbors were determined to maintain the area around it.

"As long as the city keeps on doing what they're doing, we'll follow up and do our part," Johnson said.

On the front yard of a home overlooking Clifton Park, 55-year-old Anna Gibson clipped a rose bush. She remembers a series of killings nearby not long after she moved to the neighborhood six years ago, but says things are quieter now.

Still, she has concerns.

"I have two young teenage grandsons," she said. "That's what I worry about. I just pray."

City Councilman Brandon Scott, who represents the area, said reducing crime is a "two-way street." He said citizens who are engaged in their neighborhood associations and talking to police see results from that cooperation.

"The community has to have a better relationship among themselves," Scott said.

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