Homicide rate drops in city in 1st quarter

April 02, 1994|By Michael James | Michael James,Sun Staff Writer

Baltimore police say the unseasonably cold winter is the apparent cause of a dip in the city's homicide rate, but concern is growing that the figure will climb as warmer weather brings more drug dealers onto the streets.

Sixty-one people were slain in Baltimore during the first three months of the year -- a 24 percent drop from the 80 slayings recorded during the same period last year.

"Officer Frost gets most of the credit for the homicide rate being down," Baltimore Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier said of the weather. "I think it's fortuitous that we're under last year, but I certainly can't take any personal credit for it. There's still a long way to go."

The homicide rate began falling in mid-January, when the region was overwhelmed by a series of ice storms and near-record-setting low temperatures. In a city that last year averaged nearly one murder a day, the rate dropped to less than one every two days for the last two weeks in January.

During the coldest week of the year, between Jan. 14 and Jan. 21, the city temperature hit a low of 4 below zero and averaged 13.5 degrees. Baltimore had two murders that week, both committed indoors, police reported. In another serious bout of ice storms and snowstorms between Feb. 1 and Feb. 18, nine murders were committed -- compared with 16 during the same stretch in 1993, police said.

Mr. Frazier said he believes the homicide rate can be permanently lowered by getting drug dealers off the streets. Of the record 353 homicides that occurred in Baltimore last year, most were drug-related and occurred outdoors.

"A lot of the homicides in my estimation are robberies for drugs. Either the robber or the 'robbee' is killed," Mr. Frazier said. "We just call them drug rips, you shoot and grab the bag and run. If we can do more intervention, . . . we'll get the drug trade inside the houses. Then the homicide rate would go down, for good."

Although the killings are running behind last year's pace, city homicide investigators see an ominous message in a recent surge of violence that coincided with last month's warming trend. Twenty-one people were slain in a 21-day period in March.

City Councilman Lawrence A. Bell III, a 4th District Democrat, was a vocal critic of former Police Chief Edward V. Woods, who stepped down late last year. With Mr. Woods at the helm of the Police Department, the city set homicide records last year and in 1992.

While Mr. Bell is relieved because the homicide rate is running behind last year's pace, he worries that the worst is yet to come.

"The key is going to be when we get to the summer months. That's when the real test comes," said Councilman Bell, adding: "I think the weather has been one facet of why the homicides are down. When it's cold, it slows things down."

Mr. Bell said he thought Mr. Frazier, who took over the department in January, "has sent a good message" that he intends to crack down on open-air drug dealing. The councilman pointed to the March 19 raid of the drug market in the Barclay and East Baltimore Midway neighborhood around Greenmount Avenue, in which 50 people were arrested on drug or weapons charges or both.

"The changes he's been pushing are only beginning now, so you can't really say he's had an effect yet. But I do get a sense of hope within the department, and I think criminals are beginning to see that the department is moving in a new direction," Mr. Bell said.

Reports of other serious crimes also dropped significantly in January and February, according to police figures. Decreases were reported in rape (20 percent), burglary (20 percent), larceny (5.1 percent), and robbery (2.1 percent), police figures showed.

"Whatever it is, I just hope it keeps happening," said City Council President Mary Pat Clarke.

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