Fewer than 300 homicides at last

Crime: For the first time in more than a decade, Baltimore's toll for a year breaks a barrier that it had seemed impossible to breach only months ago.

January 01, 2001|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

Baltimore recorded fewer than 300 homicides last year for the first time in more than a decade, curbing a vicious cycle of killings that stained the city as one of the nation's most violent urban centers.

The year ended yesterday with 262 homicides, well below the 305 in 1999. That broke a barrier that seemed impossible in April, when the number of killings exceeded the previous year's pace by nearly three dozen.

"It's a tremendous morale boost to the Police Department," said Commissioner Edward T. Norris. At the same time, he called 262 killings a "terrible number."

"It's nothing to do back flips over," Norris said. "It doesn't make us the safest city in the country. But it shows that we can make a big difference."

Getting under 300 killings has long been a goal of city leaders and police - and part of an anti-crime plan that helped propel Martin O'Malley into the mayor's office.

For a city with a long history of violence, the reduction is an important psychological victory in its war on crime, one that has proved frustratingly elusive for years.

Baltimore's new police leader attributes the decrease to back-to-basics policing. In August, Norris deployed a small army of police to the east side, the most violent area, where officers racked up more than 3,000 arrests and homicides plummeted. And he created a warrant task force, which has taken 114 murder suspects off city streets.

"We put the handcuffs on sooner rather than later, and we actually have an impact on violent crime," Norris said.

But statistics hardly matter to the families left to grieve. Rosalind L. Knott, 45, has lost two sons to shootings - and a third wounded by eight bullets - since April 1998. "Every time I turn on the TV, they are telling me that crime is down," Knott said. Her son Ernest L. Knott III, who was shot and killed Dec. 6, would have turned 23 the next week.

"It's all lies," she said, crying as she sat among family members in her Northeast Baltimore home recently. "No mother should have to mourn like this. You tell me why I have two sons taken by gunfire, lying side by side in a grave."

Baltimore has experienced more than 300 murders each year since 1990. Most are blamed on the city's volatile cocaine and heroin trade fueled by an estimated 60,000 addicts who stumble around desolate neighborhoods pockmarked by boarded-up rowhouses, vacant lots and trash-filled alleys.

Police officers had T-shirts emblazoned with "The city that bleeds," mocking the city's old slogan, "The city that reads."

The high homicide rate, which escalated as the population decreased by thousands each month, put Baltimore in second place in 1999 in per capita homicides, behind only Gary, Ind., and ahead of Washington, Detroit, Atlanta and New Orleans.

Baltimore, the nation's 19th-largest city, finished 1999 with the fifth-highest homicide total. Only New York, Chicago and Los Angeles - each with at least 3 million residents - and Detroit, with just under 1 million, were higher.

Years of unrelenting violence cost a police commissioner, Edward V. Woods, his job in 1993, when Baltimore set a record with 353 slayings.

Then-Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke replaced Woods with Thomas C. Frazier, an outsider from California, whose tumultuous regime also failed to stop the killings.

O'Malley took over City Hall 13 months ago, vowing to overhaul the police force and quickly cut crime and reduce homicides to 175 by 2002.

At year's end, the mayor offered several reasons for the decline during his first year in office, from ending the controversial policy of rotating homicide detectives into different jobs to boosting officer's salaries and, in turn, their morale.

"The Police Department is far more motivated, and officers are far more active in getting out of their cars to solve problems," he said.

Officials have long acknowledged that Baltimore and other big cities are judged by their homicide numbers, even though killings represent a fraction of violent crimes and are rarely random.

"You don't want people being murdered on your streets, regardless of the reason or cause," said Donald P. Hutchinson, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee, a consortium of business executives.

The group has pumped $350,000 into various crime-fighting efforts, studies and the hiring of a prosecutor to target gun offenders, arguing that the high homicide rate and violent reputation has hurt Baltimore's standing in the business community.

For the most part, homicides are concentrated in depressed areas of the city, away from downtown and many residential areas. But Hutchinson said he feels uneasy walking in parts of other cities, such as Atlanta and New Orleans, and imagines that visitors feel the same about Baltimore.

The homicide rate, he said, "has a tremendous psychological impact outside the city."

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