City streets get mean again: Shootings rise, arrests fall

Independent report says city in crisis

November 19, 1999|By Peter Hermann and Ivan Penn | Peter Hermann and Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

Two months of violence on Baltimore streets has all but wiped out glowing crime drops from earlier this year, dashing hopes that the city had finally overcome a homicide rate that made it the fourth-deadliest urban center in the nation.

Also, the number of arrests of shooting and homicide suspects has plummeted to lows deemed unacceptable by top city officials, sparking an unusually harsh private meeting in which police commanders condemned their low performance levels.

Officials said they might shake up their investigative divisions and move detectives who handle shootings from headquarters back to district stations to hold them "immediately accountable." They also plan a "holiday deployment" of 45 extra officers to target neighborhoods.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke called the situation "intolerable" but said much of the violence is confined to drug areas.

Meanwhile, a report released yesterday by a consultant team brought in by Mayor-elect Martin O'Malley promises a major reduction in "crime, disorder and fear" within months.

Col. Bert Shirey, chief of the patrol bureau, said he and other colonels were angry about the latest revelations about crime in the city. "Our clearances are down, and our shootings are up," he said. "We are losing ground on homicides. We all expressed our dissatisfaction at the meeting."

The Police Department's nine-month statistics, released yesterday, showed a 10 percent drop in everything from car theft to burglary. But the numbers mask a disturbing trend that could push the city's homicide numbers over 300 for the ninth straight year.

There have been 259 killings this year, according to police -- down from 272 at the same time last year, a 4.8 percent drop. But two months ago, the city was 33 killings below last year's pace. A one-a-day homicide rate since September, including 20 people killed in the first 17 days of this month, has erased earlier gains.

Last year ended with 314 killings, the ninth straight year with more than 300 homicides -- making Baltimore the fourth-deadliest per capita city in the nation.

Nonfatal shootings have risen from 874 last year at this time to 890 as of yesterday, and police have made arrests in 28 percent of the cases. Fewer than 40 percent of this year's killings have been solved. Five years ago, the clearance rate for homicides was more than 60 percent.

Police commanders singled out the Northeastern District at yesterday's weekly crime meeting. Of the 80 shootings reported there this year, arrests have been made in 13 cases. Citywide, 193 people have been arrested in the nearly 900 nonfatal shootings.

"We have got to put handcuffs on these people," said acting Police Commissioner Robert Smith. "If we don't, they are still out on the streets shooting people."

Drugs blamed

Schmoke blamed the shootings on street dealers and suburban addicts who venture into the city to buy cocaine and heroin. "We would like to see all of the crimes come down," said Schmoke, addressing the media at the last formal news conference of his 12-year tenure. "We have to start getting that homicide number down. It's an issue that can't be ignored."

Officer Gary McLhinney, president of the union that represents city police officers, said the response to violence has again come too late.

"Now we're in November, and some bright light goes off and somebody says, `We've got a crime problem,' " McLhinney said. "Nobody focuses on the numbers in January, February and March. Now they want to pretend they are doing something. It's a shell game."

The troublesome numbers come at a time when politics is dominating talk at Police Headquarters. A committee set up by O'Malley is meeting in secret to recommend a new police commissioner, and several commanders are in the running.

The consultant team headed by Jack Maple, a former New York transit officer credited with pioneering computer analysis that helped reduce crime in several big cities, is quietly studying the department.

An O'Malley spokeswoman said the mayoral team has applied to the Abell Foundation for a grant to pay the $2,000-a-day consultant fee.

Lower crime promised

Noting Baltimore's national image as a violent city, the consultants said in a proposal to O'Malley that they can reduce killings to 137 by 2002.

"Baltimore, by many measures, is a city in crisis," the report says.

Maple's report said there could be a "rapid, permanent cultural transformation of the Baltimore Police Department" that would "result in sustained reduction in crime, disorder and fear."

O'Malley, who as a city councilman accused former Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier of intentionally underreporting shootings to make the city look safer, wants to implement a more assertive style of policing to eradicate violence. He said he is particularly concerned with the low clearance rate.

"I think it shows that we have a lot of work to do," he said. "I'm focused on getting this problem under control so that people in this city can begin living again."

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