New squad helps reduce homicide rate Police unit targets those with drugs, guns on east, west sides

'As long as it takes'

Killings were on pace to pass 1997 number but begin to slow

June 01, 1998|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

Baltimore's homicide rate, which was rising fast only five weeks ago, has been slowed considerably by a new squad of officers blanketing high-crime neighborhoods.

Known as the homicide suppression squad and consisting mostly of highly trained tactical officers, the unit is deployed alternately on the city's east and west sides, more than doubling the number of officers assigned to those areas at night.

The squad aggressively looks for people carrying handguns or selling drugs. It also pays 60 officers overtime to stand on drug corners to disrupt business.

The squad was assembled by police commanders worried about escalating violence during the summer. The rising homicide rate was designated a top priority by Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier.

When police started the squad during the last week of April, the number of slayings was 27 above last year's pace, putting the city on track to wipe out the 6 percent drop in homicides from 1996 to 1997.

The number of homicides is even with last year. A man shot repeatedly in the head Friday night outside a Southwest Baltimore apartment brought this year's slaying total to 124 -- the same number that had occurred by this date last year.

Last week, the city went five days without a homicide. A month ago, Baltimore was on a nearly one-a-day homicide pace. Before Friday's shooting, the last slaying had occurred May 24.

"We're going to keep this up as long as it takes," said Lt. Donald E. Healy, the commander of the squad. "It's just a lot of police presence."

The officers, driving unmarked white cruisers, have made more than 110 arrests and seized 18 handguns.

No one was shot between 5 p.m. and 3 a.m. during the weekend in East Baltimore, where Healy's troops were assigned.

But Friday night and early Saturday were far from quiet. With officers busy at two serious accidents and a fire at a vacant rowhouse, frustrated dispatchers had 15 emergency calls waiting to be assigned.

The calls included a report of an "armed person" on East Federal Street; two men armed with a handgun and a sawed-off shotgun on East Chase Street; shots fired on North Milton Avenue; another "armed person" at Federal and Port streets; and a stolen Nissan Maxima on Barclay Street.

"You can feel the tension," Officer Efren E. Edwards said late Friday night. He then saw a man run down North Montford Avenue with his left hand clutching his pants pocket. The officer quickly caught him on the front steps of a rowhouse.

"Is there a reason for this?" the man shouted as Edwards grabbed him and patted him down.

"I stopped you because you were running down the street with your hand by your side," Edwards told the man.

"That's against the law?" the man asked, his pockets turned inside out and his shirt hoisted above his neck.

"No, but you could have had a gun," the officer said.

Finding nothing, Edwards walked away. "As long as we are here, it won't get out of hand," the 11-year veteran said. "I just wonder how long we can go on and keep this up."

Such aggressive patrolling sends a message on the street that violence won't be tolerated. Early Saturday morning, Officers Brad Thomas and Mark Janicki sped to a call at North Curley and East Preston streets after a woman called to say her grandson had a gun.

Within minutes, the officers found the 16-year-old standing on the sidewalk outside his grandmother's house. "I told him to go home, but he doesn't listen," said the grandmother, who wouldn't give her name. "I don't know if he has a gun or not, but he said he was going to get one."

The teen-ager didn't have a weapon, and he was let go after a warning from the 10 officers who descended on the corner.

"I just want all this shooting to stop," the woman told Thomas, who thanked her for the call.

Pub Date: 6/01/98

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