A grim celebration

Baltimore's tally of 196 homicides in 2011 is at the same time a triumph and a tragedy. The city remains one of the most violent in the nation, and that is nothing to celebrate. Nonetheless, dropping below 200 murders in a year for the first time since 1977 is a major milestone in Baltimore's long road to rebirth. It reflects years of effort from all segments of the city to make Baltimore safer, and it is a symbolic validation that the strategies to turn around a violent culture are having an effect. It has been a dozen years since Baltimore crossed its last major milestone, 300 murders in a year. The question now is how the city gets to the next level and how long it will take to get there.

When Gov. Martin O'Malley was elected mayor in 1999, he pledged to bring homicides below 175 within a few years. Another year of improvement like the one we just saw, and Baltimore would be there. It's worth setting our sights higher, particularly since Baltimore's recent run of improvement in its most closely watched crime metric has come at the same time that most other cities are also experiencing a decline in violence. Baltimore's rate of 31 murders per 100,000 residents still ranks it among the worst in the nation. Getting to the level of Philadelphia (19.6 murders per 100,000 residents in 2010) would translate to about 125 murders a year in Baltimore. That would be a worthy —and ambitious — next step.

It's impossible to know for sure what has led to the decline in murders in Baltimore in recent years, but it is worth noting that the drop coincides almost precisely with the promotion of Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III to the department's top job. That is not to say that he alone deserves the credit for the reduction in crime, but it does suggest that it is more than some demographic or sociological fluke. Mr. Bealefeld's tenure has coincided both with a shift in crime-fighting strategy and a far greater degree of coordination among Baltimore's public safety agencies.

Mr. Bealefeld has sought to focus his department's resources on the worst of the worst — the small segment of the population that is responsible for an outsized share of the violence — and he has been joined in that effort by the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein's office and, particularly in the last year, by the Baltimore state's attorney's office. Police are making about half as many arrests as they did during the days of zero-tolerance policing, but they are getting better results because of those partnerships. State's Attorney Gregg Bernstein's decision, announced this week, to adopt a community-based approach — one designed to encourage his prosecutors to become familiar with specific geographic areas of the city — should further improve officials' ability to focus their efforts on those most likely to commit violent crime in the future. The stiffer penalties for repeat gun offenders that Commissioner Bealefeld and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake have lobbied for in Annapolis would also help.

But there are inherent limitations on the impact this or any policing strategy can have on reducing violence. Academic studies and the experience of police and prosecutors here validate the notion that "bad guys with guns," in Mr. Bealefeld's phrase, are the proximal cause of the violence. The trouble is that there is not a fixed pool of such criminals; no matter how many are sent to jail, their ranks are repopulated because the social conditions that made Baltimore crime-ridden in the first place have not sufficiently changed.

Family dysfunction, widespread drug addiction, poor economic opportunities and failing schools all played a part in fostering Baltimore's crime problem, and until they are addressed, the city will never be as safe as its residents deserve. It's worth noting, for example, that the number of juvenile homicides in Baltimore plummeted at the same time that schools CEO Andrés Alonso initiated new efforts to reduce out-of-school suspensions and truancy. Preventing crime is not just the job of the police.

Bringing Baltimore's murder rate below 200 is a tremendous accomplishment, and all those who have played a part in the achievement deserve our thanks. But in order to do what is needed next, they will need help. Baltimore's most violent years, in the 1990s, were the product of a decades-long decline in which poverty, drugs and hopelessness fed on each other. We have the chance now to turn that vicious cycle into a virtuous one, but only if the entire city — indeed, the entire region — plays a part.

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