Slayings decline under new major In his first 60 days, Eastern District homicides down 50%


A spotlight sweeps across the dark expanse of a crowded street corner, casting shadows on young faces. Several teen-agers take to their heels, scattering in every direction.

"We go through this every night," says Baltimore Police Sgt. Richard Hite, aiming his comments at a youth who has refused to budge, even though Hite's spotlight frames his chiseled features. "You know the drill. Move along."

Longtime residents say scenes like this have been played out time and again on the streets of East Baltimore since Maj. Wendell M. France took command of the beleaguered Eastern Police District two months ago. The nightly drama has had a positive impact in drug-ridden neighborhoods like Middle East, where homicides dropped by more than 50 percent during France's first 60 days on the job.

Since France took the post, seven homicides have occurred in the Eastern District, a 4-mile area that encompasses Johns Hopkins Hospital and one of the state's largest correctional facilities. Seventeen homicides occurred during the period last year.

"The police have taken a more active role since France took over the department," said Elroy Christopher, 42, who lives on Luzerne Avenue in Middle East. "The streets seem a lot safer. You don't see kids on the corner, hanging out the way they used to."

France, a 26-year veteran of the Police Department, took over the district command on Aug. 19 from Maj. Odis L. Sistrunk Jr., a popular leader whose departure sparked protests from community leaders. Sistrunk was moved, a top commander said, because the district's homicide rate was consistently the city's highest.

"Odis was a really nice guy, but he just didn't appear to have an aggressive enough program for the level of crime in East Baltimore," said Jim Davenport, senior associate of The Door, a faith-based nonprofit group that works in Middle East to improve residents' economic standing.

From Jan. 1 to Aug. 19, 218 homicides occurred in the city, 47 of them in the Eastern District, according to police figures. Citywide, the number of homicides was -- and still is -- ahead of the pace last year, when Baltimore had 325 homicides for the year.

To help bring those numbers down, France redeployed some of his 260 officers and ordered his patrols to be more aggressive, to reclaim street corners from drug dealers so that residents can venture outside without fear.

"I don't need my officers sitting around here all day, looking at me," France said, "I have taken people out of specialized jobs and put them on patrol.

"The majority of my officers are in uniform, in marked cars. They are where they can make the most impact -- out on the street," said France, who was transferred from the Crimes Against Persons Division of the Criminal Investigation Bureau.

"Major France appears to be more of a planner, more strategic," Davenport said. "Since he's been in office, the police have been more visible. There have been increased patrols and the officers have been getting out of their cars to question people who look like they don't belong in the area."

The department's decision to crack down on petty crimes, such as loitering and public drinking, is part of Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier's plan to target transgressions blamed for eroding the social fabric of communities.

The new program was adopted over the objections of some law enforcement officials who were worried about an overburdened court system being inundated with thousands of defendants.

"The courts are not my concern," France said. "I've got elderly people who tell me they're afraid to come out of their houses, to walk to their churches or to go their corner grocery store because of the crowds of young people that gather outside their doors. It is not acceptable. I will not have it."

Walk through the narrow streets of Middle East and you see firsthand what France is talking about. Day and night, young men gather on street corners and the steps of vacant rowhouses. The neighborhood, in the heart of a federally designated empowerment zone, is one of the most violent areas in the district.

"I used to sit out front, but my chair was stolen one Sunday while I was at church," said Mary Griffin, 83, who has lived on North Washington Street for 26 years. "I never replaced it."

Instead, she saved her money for a more practical purchase. She bought iron bars and had them installed over the first-floor windows of her two-story rowhouse.

"I feel safer knowing they're there," she said. "You can never be too careful."

Caution seems to be a way of life in Middle East, where many residents would not speak publicly about the problems plaguing their community.

"The drugs are destroying our community, especially the young black men in our community," said the Rev. Anthony Johnson, pastor of Mount Hebron Baptist Church -- one of 10 churches in Middle East. "A lot of our younger people don't set goals because they don't believe they'll live long enough to see them fulfilled."

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