For the first time in years, Baltimore has fallen out of the top five in national murder rate, according to statistics for 2011 compiled by the FBI and released Monday.
Baltimore saw a 12 percent decline in murders last year, with the total dropping below 200 for the first time since 1978. Taking population changes into account, the murder rate per 100,000 people was the lowest since the late 1980s.
Meanwhile, the number of reported rapes jumped significantly, to levels not seen since 2000. The change followed reforms that were implemented in response to The Baltimore Sun's reporting that city police appeared to be discarding such cases at the highest rate in the nation.
Outgoing Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III, whose appointment in mid-2007 coincides with declines in murders and non-fatal shootings,credited several paers such as the school system and state parole and probation agents with helping to drive down gun violence but gave particular praise to the Police Department's officers.
“There’s a lot of people that want to stand up and take credit, but the rank and file cops are the ones out there everyday doing the hard work,” Bealefeld said.
In a statement, Gov. Martin O’Malley cheered the declining numbers. “Though this is a good step in the right direction, there is still more work to do as just one life lost to violent crime is one too many,” he said. “Together, we can make Baltimore a safer and better place for our children.”
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, through a spokesman, declined comment on the ranking but said she remains encouraged by the city’s declines in overall gun violence. In addition to the drop in murders, non-fatal shootings have dropped from 651 in 2007 to 381 last year.
Tom Noonan, the president and CEO of Visit Baltimore, said few of the city’s 21.3 million annual visitors are checking FBI statistics but rather hearing about the city through word of mouth from friends or relatives or traveling for specific events. But he said the move down the rankings represented progress.
“This drop in the rankings is a testament to the hard work of the Baltimore Police Department and all those partners working to make Baltimore a safer city for its residents and visitors,” Noonan said in an e-mail.
Bealefeld said at the beginning of his tenure, getting the city out of the top 5 was a big priority. “Does anyone really pay attention to who's number 6 or 7, or number 8? But they pay attention to that top 5,” he said.
The FBI cautions against ranking cities because of a variety factors, such as density, that make cities difficult to compare. For example, the boundaries of cities like Baltimore and Washington DC are drawn tightly around their urban core, where other cities' boundaries include wide suburban areas that would be the equivalent of Baltimore getting the benefit of Baltimore County and its large population and low crime rate.
Still, there's no doubt Baltimore has been plagued by gun violence, and it has ranked near the top of such lists year after year.
The city’s murder rate of 31.3 killings per 100,000 people remains high, and Baltimore will have to experience even sharper declines to reach the levels of neighbors such as Philadelphia (21.2) and Washington DC (17.5). Boston’s murder rate is 10.1, and New York City is 6.3.
As of Monday, murders were up about 9 percent over the same point last year.
The FBI on Monday released preliminary data for 2011, submitted by 14,000 departments from across the country. Violent crime declined 4 percent last year, the fifth year in a row of declines despite the poor economy. Property crimes were down 0.8 percent, while robberies – considered a bellweather crime – dropped across all city groupings.
The number of forcible rapes reported in Baltimore also jumped, from 265 in 2010 to 341 in 2011. The Sun reported in mid-2010 that for years, the Baltimore Police Department had labeled cases “unfounded” at the highest rate in the country, amid a steep decline in rapes reported since the 1990s.
Baltimore reported 470 rapes in 1998, but that number had tumbled to 158 by 2009 amid an increase in the number of cases labeled “unfounded” by detectives. After The Sun’s report, Rawlings-Blake ordered an audit and formed a task force for continued oversight over how police handled rape cases.
The sex offense unit was also revamped, with detectives replaced and members of the unit sent to training, while a public outreach campaign called “Rape is not your fault” was launched last year in conjunction with area non-profits.
In an e-mail, Rawlings-Blake’s spokesman Ryan O’Doherty said the mayor was “proud of the significant reforms she put in place to improve handling of rape allegations and investigations.”