Spike in killings must be contained

Joint action needed: Overwhelmed city police alone cannot stop surge of drug-connected street slayings.

Getting away with MURDER

Two years later

An Editorial

March 04, 2001

IF YOU SPELL "murder" backward, you get "red rum." And "Red Rum" is a street brand of heroin so poisonous it kills.

Red Rum also was the name of an effective but short-lived homicide task force that went after deadly drug gangs in the Baltimore region. It brought together the expertise of seasoned homicide detectives from the city, Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties and the state police. Because the Drug Enforcement Administration spearheaded the effort, prosecutions could be handled in federal courts.

Two years ago, this effort fell apart. The joint operation's staffers in the city homicide unit were reassigned under then-Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier's destructive rotation policy. Their replacements did not have homicide backgrounds.

Today, as lethal violence threatens to undo last year's successes in curbing killings, Baltimore desperately needs the help of a Red Rum task force under the auspices of the Drug Enforcement Administration. Mayor Martin O'Malley and Commissioner Edward T. Norris should seek its revival as soon as possible.

But that is not enough.

The city's homicide unit, which is recovering its professionalism under Maj. Robert M. Stanton, must be strengthened.

It needs an operations squad. Members of such a flexible squad would linger at slaying scenes after the primary investigators are gone, listening to street talk, recruiting informants and making sure nothing is lost during the first crucial 48 hours when the fate of most homicide cases is decided.

When Martin O'Malley ran for mayor in 1999, he pledged to get Baltimore's appalling homicide rate under control. Last year, for the first time in 11 years, killings dipped below 300. That was an intermediate goal of the mayor, who has promised to reduce homicides to 175 by 2002.

This year has started badly.

In the past fortnight, a flurry of slayings has put the homicide figures ahead of last year's at this point. This could be a statistical aberration. But it could also be a sign that homicides in the city are on the increase after last year's reprieve. Many other big cities around the nation, after all, are registering a noticeable uptick in homicides -- after a decade of decreases.

"It's really hard after two bad weekends to say that worse things are coming," Mayor O'Malley said in an interview. He pointed out that shooting statistics continued to reflect a significant decrease over last year. Most other serious crime categories also are falling.

Behind the calm public exterior is an anxious mayor. He has staked his political future on reducing violence and re-energizing Baltimore's stunted economy. Every time yellow crime-scene tape goes up, every time a chalk outline is drawn, it is a setback.

The city began getting a handle on its out-of-control street slayings last August, when Commissioner Norris flooded Eastern District slums with 120 extra officers. Aided by computerized crime maps, police commanders quickly identified patterns of violence and sent reinforcements to quell trouble.

Frazier had tried the same strategy -- without computerized mapping -- when he headed the Police Department. He was not successful.

Massing of officers can be effective. But it drains resources from the other eight police districts. And the longer such an operation is kept going, the less threatening its routine becomes to criminals.

A case in point: the latest wave of violence in the Western and Northern districts. "The street has figured it out," one veteran of the homicide unit says of the shifting geography of killings. Another detective says the phenomenon is like an inflatable toy that changes its shape in response to pressure.

In Baltimore, where one out of eight adults is believed to be addicted to heroin, cocaine or alcohol, most killings have a drug dimension. Dealers are gunned down in disputes over turf, money or acts of disrespect; drug figures are slain in robberies; addicts engage in stickups that end in violence. No long-term decline in homicides is possible until that link between drugs and killing is broken.

That's why the Red Rum task force was so important.

Using the resources of participating agencies, it could go after the octopus-like drug gangs that often have tentacles throughout the region. Since the goal was to wipe out an entire criminal organization, elaborate cases could be built and taken to federal court where prosecution was swifter, conviction more predictable and sentences heavier.

If murders were the price of doing business for drug gangs, Red Rum made the price prohibitively expensive by putting ringleaders in prison for a long time.

Red Rum was not the only joint anti-crime operation that enlisted federal help. Indeed, after Mayor O'Malley made combating killings his administration's top priority, federal firearms prosecutions in Maryland skyrocketed last year. But federal prosecutions of complex drug murder cases flagged after the demise of the Red Rum initiative.

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