Decline in homicides is good news for city

Trend: If drop continues, Baltimore's murder rate could fall below 300 for first time in 10 years

Getting away with MURDER

April 09, 1999

BALTIMORE ended the first quarter of 1999 with a 25 percent decline in homicides. Even though this is still a tentative trend, it is tremendous news. With the annual number of homicides exceeding 300 during each of the past nine years, Baltimore has been one of the most lethal cities in America -- at a time when the national murder rate has steadily declined.

Reasons for Baltimore now joining this decline are not obvious. Swings in crime patterns seldom are. But since an overwhelming majority of killings in Baltimore are drug-related, it may be that violence associated with the crack trade has begun to level off. This has happened over the past couple of years in other cities, where the crack epidemic hit earlier.

More aggressive policing also seems to have played a part.

When the homicide unit was overhauled in February in the most drastic reorganization in five decades, it became responsible for investigating nonfatal shootings as well. The theory was that most of those shootings were unsuccessful homicides. Soon afterward, the Police Department introduced sector management throughout the city, giving lieutenants, the middle managers of command, more freedom -- and accountability -- in fighting crime. They now receive more of the glory if they succeed -- and more of the blame if they fail.

Meanwhile, the city's malfunctioning criminal-justice system, which has been the subject of recent Sun editorials, has started to change. Certainty of punishment for heinous crimes is returning. The Circuit Court has put a stop to endless postponements that led to the release of accused murderers and armed robbers because their trials had been delayed too long.

Although homicides have started to decline, the basic conditions that made Baltimore such a lethal city have not changed. Narcotics are still a bane: A shocking one of 11 residents is believed to be addicted to heroin or cocaine. Guns, particularly in the hands of juveniles, are still used to resolve disputes over drugs, girls or perceived slights.

After previously reported decreases in overall crime and in violent incidents, the first-quarter decline in homicides is a promising sign. It is no cause for slacking off, though.

If anything, this trend should spur the criminal-justice bureaucracies to hasten reforms and improve coordination.

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