Leaders seek way to bring crime down Police commanders worried by violence rising in Baltimore

169 slain in first 6 months

Homicide count this year may reach 350 if pace continues

July 05, 1996|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF The New York Times and Knight-Ridder News services contributed to this article.

Two years ago, when gun-related violence in Baltimore dropped significantly for the first time in a decade, city leaders expressed hope that carnage on city streets had finally begun to diminish.

But since then, shootings and homicides have steadily risen. And while this year's pace will most likely fall short of that in 1993 -- when a record 353 people were killed and 1,880 were shot -- city police commanders are concerned by the escalating numbers.

"We are knocking ourselves out trying to figure out what it is," said Col. Steven A. Crumrine, chief of the criminal investigation bureau, which includes the 60-member homicide unit.

"If we had an answer, our phone would be ringing all day long, because everyone in the country would want to know what it is," Crumrine said.

In 1994, killings in the city slipped to 321 and shootings to 1,271. Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier credited the reduction from the record numbers of 1993 in part to a series of high-profile drug raids in the city's most violent neighborhoods. Despite the reductions, Baltimore was rated the seventh-most murderous city in the nation that year, with 43 slayings for every 100,000 residents.

But then in 1995, killings rose to 325 and shootings to 1,519. In the first six months of this year, 169 people were killed -- 18 more than by mid-1995. If the current pace continues, the total homicide count this year will run between 340 and 350.

Overall, major crime in Baltimore -- including rape, robbery and assaults -- rose 2.5 percent in 1995, bucking a national trend in which serious offenses declined for the fourth straight year. The national murder rate dropped 8 percent, the third-sharpest decline in 30 years.

In New York, where police have taken credit for a 36 percent decrease in crime over the past three years -- including a dramatic drop in slayings -- violence again is down in the first half of this year.

Criminal justice experts argue that many big cities are seeing a leveling in crime rates after the 1980s boom in crack cocaine responsible for a large number of killings. This year in Baltimore, the numbers have fluctuated.

"We have weeks where you just can't figure out what is going on because you have so many shootings," Crumrine said. "Then it's quiet the next week, and you can't figure out why because we didn't do anything different."

Daniel Webster, assistant professor of health policy at the Johns Hopkins University school of public health, said such fluctuations are normal.

"Crime goes up, crime goes down," said Webster, who is affiliated with the school's center for gun policy research. "I'm not suggesting that it's a random thing. Retaliatory violence is quite common and plays a big role in violent crime. That's one reason for these little spurts."

Baltimore's police chief has tried a variety of initiatives to bring the violence down. He started with massive drug sweeps in March 1994, targeting the most violent offenders. Then he made gun seizures a top priority, ordering officers to forgo minor drug possession arrests and concentrate on dealers and firearms.

Frazier has rejected a gun squad similar to a much-heralded program in Kansas City, because officers there use controversial "profile stops" to detain people suspected of carrying weapons. Frazier instead formed a small gun squad whose members stop people based on theories that people carrying guns walk and act a certain way.

Frazier also has rejected citywide zero-tolerance, in which officers arrest people on virtually every violation in hopes that minor arrests will ferret out dangerous criminals or send a signal that any type of criminal violation will not be tolerated. Instead, district commanders are encouraged to do their own "zero-tolerance" initiatives targeting specific neighborhoods.

Officer Gary McLhinney, president of the police union, praised Frazier for another recent initiative -- putting investigators and administrative officers back in uniform on a rotating basis over the summer to add more police to the streets.

But the union head said that only proves the city needs more police officers. "Once again, we're putting a Band-Aid on a problem that needs a tourniquet."

Webster said, "The most serious form of violence involving guns and teen-agers has continued to rise since the late '80s and is not leveling off. That is cause for a big concern now."

Pub Date: 7/05/96

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