After rising for years, Baltimore slayings, shootings fall Police chief thinks drug raids helped produce decline in violence last year

January 08, 1995|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,Sun Staff Writer Sun staff writer Michael James contributed to this article.

For the first time in nearly a decade, gun-related violence in Baltimore dropped significantly in 1994, prompting hopes that after years of growing carnage, the face of violence here may be changing.

Homicides dipped from 353 in 1993 to 321 last year. In the first nine months of the year, the number of shootings fell precipitously from 1,880 to 1,271.

In addition, overall violent crime dropped 3.7 percent during the first 10 months of 1994, the most recent statistics available.

Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier views the decline in shootings as an important indicator that violence in the city is starting to ebb. In a city reeling from two straight years of record slayings, the decrease is welcome relief to city leaders and to Mr. Frazier, who believes that the homicide tide was stemmed, at least in part, by the drug raids he ordered in violent neighborhoods last year.

Mr. Frazier, who estimates that two-thirds of Baltimore's slayings are drug-related, said the raids "helped take violent offenders off the street."

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke remains appalled at the propensity for self-inflicted violence by blacks here and nationwide. In a city that is 60 percent African-American, blacks account for 90 percent of the homicide victims and 96 percent of the homicide suspects.

"Black-on-black crime continues to be a real problem in our community," the mayor said. "We are doing more harm to ourselves than was ever contemplated during the era of segregation.

"We have inflicted more pain on ourselves than the Klan did during the worst periods."

Nationally, violent crime also showed a decline. The most recent FBI statistics indicate violent crime fell 4 percent in the first six months of 1994. Homicides dropped 2 percent.

As in Baltimore, many explanations are offered for the crime drop. They range from changing demographics to more aggressive police tactics to more involvement from community residents.

Joan McCord, a professor of criminal justice at Temple University in Philadelphia, believes that the combination of a fall in homicides and in shootings suggests that Baltimore may be experiencing a true drop in crime rather than a statistical aberration. But she counsels that the situation in Baltimore needs more study.

"That [the dual decline] is a pretty good indication that you are having a real reduction in crime," said Professor McCord, who continues to assess the dip in crime reflected by the FBI reports nationally.

Mr. Schmoke and Mr. Frazier said they believe that last year's raids played a significant role in the declining violence in the city. In the past, Baltimore police concentrated on arresting street dealers and users while in 1994 they zeroed in on the most violent of criminals.

At his confirmation hearing in February, Mr. Frazier listened to a barrage of criticism of police indifference and ineffectiveness from City

Council members who charged that the department ignored obvious crimes and allowed violence to occur night after night in poor black neighborhoods.

The commissioner said he has been targeting open-air drug markets, where violent individuals regularly congregate. In three raids, the first one in March, hundreds of heavily armed police officers were sent into three neighborhoods in East and West Baltimore, arresting hundreds of drug suspects -- many with preset bails of up to $1 million.

"I think [the City Council] knew, as I knew, that the source of a lot of the street homicides is outright robberies for drugs or money," Mr. Frazier said. "That had to be our No. 1 priority. . . . It was clear to me and to the mayor that it was the most important issue facing the city."

Statistics from two of the East Baltimore communities targeted by police show crime decreased by about 35 percent in the months after the raids in those areas, compared with the corresponding periods in 1993.

For example, only one homicide was reported in the Middle East -- the area around Johns Hopkins Hospital -- between the time the raids commenced in July through November. During those months in 1993, eight slayings were reported in the area.

"All these high-profile drug sweeps are giving people the impression that there is something new happening," said Councilman Martin O'Malley.

"For two years, homicides were up and there was no change in strategy. Now there is a change in strategy and homicides are down," he said.

Programs designed to stop the killing also abounded last year, including a gun turn-in day at 7-Eleven stores, a new curfew law and a revitalization effort spearheaded by Johns Hopkins Hospital to redevelop the inner-city neighborhood it calls home.

Also, the city was designated an empowerment zone, netting a $100 million federal grant that will be administered by a nonprofit corporation.

The grants, spread over several years, will pay for a variety of health, job training and economic development programs -- all of which are aimed at stabilizing neighborhoods and families.

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