O'Malley succeeds in taming fear of violence

Killings continue: Law enforcement agencies should target big drug organizations in 2002.

January 03, 2002

BECAUSE HOMICIDES are constantly reclassified, Baltimore may or may not have ended 2001 with two fewer killings than the year before.

But the official year-end tally -- whether it is 259 or slightly higher or lower -- is less important than the direction it represents.

For the second year in a row, Baltimore recorded fewer than 300 homicides, a level of lethality that was exceeded each year throughout the 1990s.

Even more encouraging is the overall downward spiral in most nonviolent crime categories.

This means Mayor Martin O'Malley continues to deliver on his campaign pledge to tame the city's violent streets and make this a decent place to live once again. It means he was right to bring in Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris, right to declare war on the east-side thugs who had made that area unlivable in recent years, and right to expand his war to the west side in the past 12 months.

Nearly everything related to this city's turnaround -- the bustling real estate market, the new entertainment districts sprouting up and the continuing development around the waterfront -- owes its existence to the stunning reduction in violent crime over the past two years.

But before we pop the cork on any celebratory champagne, let's have a reality check.

These crime reductions are mere first steps. It is too soon to declare victory.

Our drop in homicides took place as many other big cities suffered sharp increases last year. St. Louis, Houston, San Antonio, Chicago and Atlanta all experienced a new epidemic of deadly violence.

Perhaps most alarming was Boston's 60 percent hike in killings, because that city had been celebrated for its success in virtually eliminating homicides.

No criminologist knows for sure why homicides go up or down. And even though nearly every jurisdiction struggles to keep a lid on lethal violence, their success varies widely -- even among neighboring jurisdictions in Maryland. For example, gun violence got out of control in Prince George's County last year, while the neighboring District of Columbia managed to keep killings down.

Many of the societal conditions that cause violence don't favor Baltimore.

Drugs are such a problem that an estimated one of every six adults is addicted to heroin, cocaine or alcohol.

Not surprisingly, most of the homicides in the city have some link to drugs. Many are outright execution-like killings prompted by feuds among drug gangs.

Three vital strategies must continue -- or get started in earnest -- for the city to be successful.

One is a police game plan that focuses squarely on individuals and criminal formations that specialize in repeat killings.

Many of the murders in the city are reprisal killings that are somewhat predictable because they're committed by rival gang members or people who have killed before.

Efforts to zero in on these murderers before they pull the trigger have to continue.

Another strategy is more and better drug treatment.

There are still far too many addicts in Baltimore, and no amount of policing is likely to have the impact that detoxification and rehab will on their criminal impulses.

With promises of additional state drug treatment aid, the city should improve programs that deliver and get rid of those that don't.

A third strategy needs special attention this year: combating the sophisticated networks that bring narcotics to Baltimore.

Police have not been terribly successful at this strategy so far, but it's just as important as the other two.

Drugs aren't grown in East Baltimore rowhouses or Park Heights alleys. They're brought there by criminals who should be no less the target of police attention than the addicts and dealers who kill for the drugs.

The city is on the right track in this battle, and the momentum from the last two years' efforts should carry over nicely to 2002.

With rededicated focus and energy, there's no reason Baltimore won't continue to enjoy a decline in death and violence in years to come.

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