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Baltimore crime fight meets battle of pessimism vs. optimism

That the mayor of Baltimore and the new police commissioner want to establish a "war room" approach to curtailing the surge of shootings and killings — that, during another of our crazy-bloody weekends, they called a Sunday evening news conference to announce it — was optically effective. It looked good. It conveyed a sense of urgency that we haven't seen for a while.

But this is Baltimore, where the default attitude about seeing a drop in violent crime is set between painfully cautious optimism and bleary-eyed pessimism. For how many years have we been hearing that Charm City is one of the most violent in the country? There were years when total crime declined across the board, but the homicide number hardly budged.

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When the annual homicide count finally dropped below 200 for the first time in three decades — that was in 2011, and Fred Bealefeld was police commissioner — Baltimore was still one of the deadliest cities in the nation. The number of killings dropped that year, but by then so had the city's population.

So even when a particular policing strategy — or something in the municipal water supply — led to a decrease in killings, we only semi-celebrated the news. We have been "per capita among the deadliest" for a long time.

It might not be so if Baltimore did not have surges of shootings — waves of killings, horrific weekends like the one we just saw. You can look it up and find the phenomenon almost every year.

For instance, there was a stretch in the fall of 1994 with 46 killings in 41 days, many of them related to drug dealing in the city's Eastern police district. And you don't have to go back that far to find such surges and spikes. I just happened to come across that fact while researching a shooting case from the early 1990s, in years when annual homicides topped 300. Back then, the violence — fueled by crack cocaine — seemed really out of control.

I don't remember what the police strategy at the time was. It seemed to be a shrug more than anything.

Then came the O'Malley years and the mass arrests from zero-tolerance policing. The overall crime numbers dropped significantly during that time. But what wasn't measured is what we've seen since the death of Freddie Gray: the toll all those arrests took on the relationship between police and the citizens who lived closest to the zero-tolerance effort and the war on drugs.

Still, in 2006, the year O'Malley was elected governor of Maryland, the city had 273 homicides, making it the second-deadliest large city in the country, behind only Detroit.

Things changed when Sheila Dixon became mayor and Leonard Hamm became police commissioner. They both said that the city "cannot arrest its way out of this problem" and that a community-policing approach was needed to win back public trust in many neighborhoods.

But in 2007, an election year, Dixon fired Hamm, during a homicide surge — sound familiar? — and Bealefeld took over.

Bealefeld pushed a strategy of targeted enforcement and an emphasis on "bad guys with guns." The homicide numbers started to drop again. Still, even during Bealefeld's tenure, there were insane surges of shootings. On one Sunday night in 2009, 18 people were shot, two of them fatally.

What makes the current surge different is its place in a sequence of events — the death of Freddie Gray after he sustained injuries in police custody, the public's angry response to Gray's death, the riot of April 27, followed by the arrests of six officers in connection with Gray's death.

Then comes the surge of shootings across the city, a drop in arrests and a statement by the leader of the police union that cops are "more afraid of going to jail for doing their jobs properly than they are of getting shot on duty."

So a citizen is left with big questions: Is the surge in violence happening because cops aren't making arrests? Are cops not making arrests because they're afraid of how those arrests will look on someone's cellphone camera? Or are they standing back because most of them do not live in the city and really don't care what happens here? Is this a protest? Is this the rank and file's way of saying, "You want us to back off, we'll back off"? Is this how the Fraternal Order of Police got rid of Anthony Batts as commissioner?

Pardon the cynicism, and consider the circumstance. We have seen surges of killings in Baltimore before, but this one comes midst the high tension created by the Freddie Gray case, civil unrest, a police department in disarray, a mayor at odds with the police union and a city election looming.

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But while we have a real mess on our hands — the worst I've seen in nearly 40 years of covering Baltimore — we also have a new (or interim) commissioner, Kevin Davis, who brings a fresh sense of urgency to a problem that has persisted in Baltimore over decades: surging, ebbing, spiking, dropping, surging, and driving other commissioners from office.

I hope the mayor leaves the man alone to do the job as I heard him describe it last week — targeted enforcement of violent repeat offenders (Bealefeld's "bad guys with guns"), community policing and restoring trust with citizens.

I'll leave the dial set between good ol' cautious optimism and utter pessimism.

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