Police try to reach young criminals

`Gang call-ins' aim to prevent killings, gun-related offenses

April 09, 1999|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

A group seen as Baltimore's next generation of hard-core criminals swaggered into a city elementary school rimmed with armed officers and quietly listened to an effort by police to use words to stop violence.

The young men and handful of women, all convicted on drug and gun charges, went to the Wednesday night "gang call-in" because their parole terms required it. They sat in stoic silence, forbidden from talking or asking questions. They stared at mug shots of their friends.

It was the third such session police have held since last year in different parts of the city -- one of several strategies they are trying to bring down a murder rate that made Baltimore one of the deadliest cities in the nation last year.

Killings have dropped about 30 percent this year, and police said they will continue urgent efforts to keep the numbers down. The "gang call-ins" are aimed at confronting criminals before they graduate to more serious offenses, and sending them a warning that law enforcement "will come down hard" if they participate in violent activity.

Two months ago, police conducted an operation dubbed the "McHenry Street Crunch" and arrested 31 suspected members of the Rigby-Dukes drug organization, which operated in three compact neighborhoods of Southwest Baltimore where nine people were killed and 18 shootings occurred last year.

"We're tired of the violence," Col. John E. Gavrilis told the group, reminding them that many of those arrested in February remain behind bars, held on $1 million bails. "Too many of your friends are dying, and we care about that very much."

Mixed reactions

The participants had mixed reactions. Some were surprised at the detailed information police had on them, but they weren't sure it would slow the sales of drugs or the use of guns needed to protect the illicit trade.

"I think it was good that they told us they are going to be so hard on guns," said William "Damian" Thiel, 16, who has been convicted as a juvenile of possession of drugs with intent to distribute.

"I don't think it means the guys will stop carrying guns," the Southwestern High School freshman said in an interview after the meeting. "People will just be more cautious . I don't know if this will do anything for gun violence. It depends on how seriously guys take it."

Baltimore has been troubled by a murder rate that has exceeded 300 for nine straight years, making the city fourth in slayings per capita. But from Jan. 1 to yesterday, 65 slayings had been reported in the city, compared with 92 at the same time last year.

"That's good news if it holds up," said Lawrence Sherman, chairman of the department of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Maryland, College Park. He cautioned, however, that it is difficult to project four months of data to "what the whole year will be."

Baltimore's murder rate had remained steady while murder rates in other cities plummeted. New York, with a population roughly 10 times greater than Baltimore's, recorded 629 murders in 1998, compared with 767 in 1997, and 2,262 murders in 1990.

But early signs show New York's numbers steadying. Police there report 166 slayings this year, up from 157 at the same time in 1998. Washington, which also experienced a decrease last year, has had up to 73 killings, compared with 58 at this time in 1998.

Targeted effort

Baltimore police are trying to concentrate on a select group of violent offenders who they believe are responsible for a vast majority of the violence. Of the 203 people arrested on murder charges last year, police statistics show that 65 percent had prior arrests, most for drugs, guns, shootings and robberies.

Police said 60 percent of the 314 homicide victims in 1998 had arrest records, nearly half for drug offenses and one-fifth for shootings or gun possession. Police said 3 percent of the murder victims and suspects had been involved in a prior slaying.

Keeping the numbers down is not easy. In January and February, Police Maj. John L. Bergbower saturated the southwest communities of Shipley Hill and Carrollton Ridge with police after a deadly 1998. Within a week after the extra-duty officers pulled out, three people were killed.

Police blamed the shootings on fights over drug turf in the wake of the Rigby-Dukes gang's demise. They suspect a young man killed on Hollins Street had killed a man on Catherine Street a day earlier. The person suspected in the Hollins Street slaying was killed a few days later on Frederick Avenue.

"These were retribution type of shootings," Bergbower said. "You can't stop those."

Getting specific

Police hope they can stem the tide of violence by directly confronting the people most likely to be involved in it. At Samuel F. B. Morse Elementary School on South Pulaski Street, a broad spectrum of law enforcement officials spelled out the consequences for criminal behavior Wednesday.

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