Drop in city murders could be turning point

Baltimore: Bid to stem violence will fail unless judges, governor and probation machinery pitch in.

January 03, 2001

BALTIMORE TURNED an important corner in recording fewer than 300 homicides last year for the first time in more than a decade. But Mayor Martin O'Malley's ambitious goal -- to reduce the number to 175 by the end of 2002 -- won't be achieved unless judges, Gov. Parris N. Glendening and the probation system become more reliable partners in stopping the bloodshed.

The decline in homicides this year was due, in large part, to aggressive policing methods introduced by Commissioner Edward T. Norris. He concentrated patrol officers on the lethal streets of East Baltimore. His warrant squad went after violent criminals who were at large even though serious charges already had been lodged against them.

The commissioner's no-nonsense approach -- and the mayor's political will -- paid dividends in an overall reduction of violent crime.

The impact could be gauged from a rooftop deck in West Baltimore's Union Square on New Year's Eve. Just three years ago, the worst New Year's Eve for celebratory gunfire, the spray of bullets was so bad that revelers were forced to flee the deck. Early Monday morning, automatic weapons still crackled sporadically. But the feeling of lawlessness -- punctuated by the incessant staccato of firing weapons and chings of bullets nicking the roof -- was absent.

FOR THE RECORD - A box on yesterday's editorial page gave incorrect numbers for murders in Baltimore City. It should have said there were 262 in 2000 vs. 305 in 1999. The Sun regrets the error.

Police managed to achieve this reduction in violence without the mass arrests or allegations of police brutality some had feared when Mr. Norris, a former New York City commander, took over in February.

Police cannot succeed acting alone, though.

"These gains will be short-lived," Mayor O'Malley said recently, "if the court system -- prosecutors and judges -- don't do a good job in delivering justice in a timely manner."

Despite nearly two years of coordinated efforts to rectify the situation, the criminal justice system is still too often bogged down by inefficiencies and turf battles. No stepped-up efforts by police can really be productive unless wrong-doers know that misdeeds will earn predictable punishment.

In particular, the estimated 4,000 "core criminals," who are believed to be responsible for half the city's homicides, must be shown that they can no longer operate without suffering consequences. Judges and the probation machinery must demonstrate that.

One-third of Baltimore offenders are on probation at the time of their re-arrest. If judges keep on giving them more probation for new transgressions -- as often happens -- those repeat criminals at the very least should be effectively supervised. And since many of them are dependent on drugs, enough treatment slots should be created to provide them a way out of addiction.

Incomprehensibly, Gov. Parris N. Glendening still hasn't committed the funds needed for the long-overdue overhaul of the state-run probation agency. Similarly, the city's budget request for more drug treatment money is mired in a political tug of war.

In curtailing lethal violence last year, Baltimore and nearby Washington were exceptions. Many other big cities recorded more homicides, in a reversal of decade-long trend.

How realistic, then, is Mayor O'Malley's goal of reducing murders to 175 by the end of 2002?

With sustained effort, it can be done. After reaching 330 murders in 1972, Baltimore was gradually able to control a previous killing wave and bring the number down first to 259 in 1975, then to 200 in the bicentennial year of 1976, and 171 in 1977.

But once that trend reversed itself in 1978, the homicide toll never dipped below 200. By 1990, the total reached 305. The all-time high -- 353 -- was recorded three years later.

Many criminologists acknowledge they have little idea what causes such wide swings in killing. But drug epidemics, policing practices and sentencing clearly play major roles. So do changes in economic conditions.

Baltimore's successful attack on violence has already produced rewards. The top-end residential real estate market is thriving, office space is in heavy demand and citizens' faith in the city's future has been strengthened.

Mayor O'Malley and Commissioner Norris can deservedly bask in this optimism. Their challenge this year is to assure that the trend continues. In this task, they need the support of each and every Baltimorean.

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