Killings in city slow down Baltimore may end '97 with lowest number of slayings in 8 years

Violence is 'settling'

Police credit decline to downward trend in crack cocaine use

September 10, 1997|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF The Knight-Ridder news service contributed to this article.

Baltimore could finish the year with the fewest homicides since 1989, when 262 people were killed -- a sign that drug-related violence might be dropping in neighborhoods accustomed to gunfire.

It is the first significant indication that the city's recent violent crime drop might be cutting into the murder rate, which remained stubbornly constant despite a 50 percent reduction in shootings since 1993.

Police attribute the fall to a variety of initiatives by Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier, such as going after guns and a downward crime trend in many East Coast urban centers hit hard by the crack cocaine epidemic that broke out in the mid-1980s.

"Maybe what we've seen in Baltimore was the peak of the violence, and now the settling down," said Henry Brownstein, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Baltimore, who wrote a book last year called "The Rise and Fall of a Violent Crime Wave."

For Brownstein, the crime rates "are going back down to a level that they were for a century. It's not why crime is coming down, but why it went up and why it's coming back down."

The surge in slayings and homicides in the early 1990s has been blamed on crack cocaine -- a cheap and easily accessible drug that spawned open-air markets and led to shootings as dealers fought over street corner stores. The city set a record in 1993 with 353 slayings and 2,458 shootings.

Now, according to the National Institute of Justice, an arm of the U.S. Department of Justice, crack use across the nation is on the decline. Locally, city police say, the free-for-all crack trade has settled as dealers who scrambled for market share a few years ago have carved recognized boundaries.

"As they became more organized, there was less need to use violence to settle disputes," said Brownstein, who has studied -- the drug trade in New York for years.

Last year, city officials were worried because despite a drop in shootings, homicides continued apace, with 331 slayings by the end of 1996. The last time the city finished with fewer than 300 slayings was in 1989.

Barometer of safety

While slayings represent a small portion of the violent crime in Baltimore, the numbers have long been seen as a barometer of safety. Last year, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, Baltimore was the fifth deadliest city in the nation.

But that might be beginning to change.

"It's not a doubt anymore that we're going to have a decent reduction," said Lt. John Tewey, head of the Violent Crime Task Force, which investigates nonfatal shootings. "It's just a matter of how much."

As of yesterday, the city had 209 slayings, compared with 243 at the same time last year. Likewise, nonfatal shootings are down from 926 to 722. Based on yesterday's figures, the number of homicides projected at year's end is 302. The biggest gap in slayings between this year and last was Sept. 2, when the city was 40 below 1996's pace -- 199 compared with 239.

'It's for real'

"Something good is happening," Tewey said. "I think we're hammering away on all eight cylinders. I'm at the point now where I'm confident that it's for real."

The city has gone four days without a killing several times this year, but some other days temper good news. On Monday, seven people were shot and wounded and another four people -- including a pregnant woman hit by a stray bullet -- were killed. Another shooting spree last week left six people injured and one dead at a downtown nightclub.

That may be one reason Dr. Thomas Scalea, chief of Maryland Shock Trauma Center, said city violence "really hasn't changed substantially in the past four years. In general, we have certainly not seen a decrease in total number of patients."

Success in New York

Crime reductions in other cities hampered Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke during his re-election bid two years ago, as his opponent continually asked why Baltimore remained dangerous while other cities, particularly New York, were getting safer.

Under New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, violent crime has dropped 44 percent in four years. Once considered the nation's most dangerous city, New York is now one of the safest. Homicides fell from 1,995 in 1992 to 984 last year -- a 51 percent decline. The murder rate now approaches the rates of the 1960s, well before crack cocaine took over neighborhoods.

Frazier has refused calls to implement so-called "zero-tolerance" policing -- widely credited for New York's success -- and prefers his officers to target guns and violent drug dealers.

He did copy New York's weekly crime meetings in which district commanders map crime patterns and are grilled about their strategies to quickly recognize emerging trouble spots.

Other factors

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