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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

Significant drops in crime, as much as 30 percent in recent years, have been overshadowed by the city's stubborn homicide figures, which remained steady even as cities such as New York, Boston, New Orleans and Los Angeles experienced unprecedented declines.

Norris, a former deputy commissioner in New York City, is credited with developing a successful crime plan for New York City that reduced homicides there from 2,245 in 1990 to 671 in 1999, giving a metropolis with 7.4 million people one of the lowest per-capita murder rates - 9.1 per 100,000 - in the country.

Baltimore, with its murder rate of 48.2 per 100,000 in 1999 would have to reduce homicides to about 56 a year to experience a rate similar to New York's.

But now there seems to be a reversal of fortune. During the first six months of 2000, according to FBI statistics released Dec. 18, killings have increased in most big cities. Baltimore, after years of watching local homicide rates rise while crime declined nationally, is one of the few cities experiencing a decrease.

Criminologists do not view homicide numbers as a good barometer of crime. In statistics, killing someone counts the same as stealing a stereo from a car.

Homicides, said James J. Fyfe, a professor of criminal justice at Temple University, "really don't affect most people." And killings are hard crimes to prevent. "It's easy to protect a place. You can flood the area around Camden Yards and stop muggings," he said. "But if Joe wants to shoot Charlie, it's a hell of a lot more difficult to stop."

The homicide toll in Baltimore has been staggering. Figures compiled from police and medical examiners' records show that 14,446 people have been killed in Baltimore since 1812. The city, nicknamed Mob Town during the Civil War, has always been known for violence, from the rough-and-tumble days of roving gangs in the 1840s to the Election Day riots in the latter half of the 19th century.

In the 1940s, The Sun reported a crime wave "rolling across the city" and noted that nearly one in five males over age 18 had an arrest record. The city had about 950,000 residents, and averaged just under 100 murders a year, on par with other major cities at the time.

But it was the 1990s that established Baltimore as a murderous city. During the decade, the population dropped by more than 100,000, to 632,000, while homicides continued at an alarming pace.

With each violent death, a family mourned, most having gained little public attention. Rosalind Knott said she doesn't like the preoccupation with the numbers that shroud the names.

Her sons Daniel P. Smith, 22, and David Smith, 16, were shot April 2, 1998, as they stood on their porch in the 1100 block of W. Saratoga St. The elder brother died; the younger was hit eight times. He survived, but has three bullets lodged in his chest.

Police said four assailants rode down the street shooting from bicycles. No motive has been discerned, nor has any arrest been made.

Last month, another of Knott's sons, Ernest L. Knott, 22, was found shot in the head in a car in the 600 block of Cokesbury Ave. in East Baltimore. That shooting occurred 75 feet from another fatal attack on the same street three days earlier, though police said the two cases do not appear related.

Police have made an arrest in the slaying of Ernest Knott, but have declined to discuss a motive other than to say they believe the shooting was related to drugs. Patrol officers call that strip of Cokesbury, behind Cecil Elementary School, "Reefer Row."

Rosalind Knott said her sons who died had worked at a Towson restaurant and proudly showed off a certificate that Daniel had earned for prompt service at the Marriott Inner Harbor Hotel three months before he was killed.

Ernest Knott was engaged and had two children, Ernest IV, 6, and Troy, 4.

She said the motive behind the shootings doesn't matter. "How is it that crime is going down when my three sons have been shot?" she asked. "I don't believe the politicians. Crime may be going down, but only in their neighborhoods. This is a bad city. I don't want to live in Baltimore anymore."

Experts who have studied Baltimore's crime problem say it can be curtailed by understanding its root causes and having police target the offenders.

Harvard criminologist David Kennedy concluded in 1999 that the average homicide suspect in Baltimore had been arrested 9.6 times before being charged with murder and the typical victim had been arrested 8.5 times before being killed.

Ernest Knott had been arrested on drug distribution charges early last year; the charges were dismissed by a District Court judge during a preliminary hearing a day before he was killed.

Police say that of the 149 people arrested in killings last year, 54 were on parole or probation.

Kennedy found that half the suspects were involved in a drug gang and that 60 percent of the killings occurred in or near a street drug market.

"It's not immune to understanding and not immune from prevention," Kennedy said.

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