Citing new FBI figures showing violent crime is going down faster in Baltimore than in most big cities, Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris said yesterday that "things are getting better" even as he acknowledged the homicide rate remains stubbornly high.
Norris also praised the work of his officers - and took a swipe at the judicial system.
"If we brought in 1,000 more police and made 20,000 more arrests a year - if the people don't stay in jail, what good does that do?" Norris asked. "We're arresting the same people over and over."
`Numbers don't lie'
Norris said the FBI's annual crime report shows Baltimore achieved the second-largest reduction in violent crime between 1999 and last year, trailing only Portland, Ore.
There were 19 percent fewer rapes and 23 percent fewer robberies. Aggravated assaults declined 19 percent. Overall, violent crime dropped 14 percent in 2000 and 8 percent last year.
"Things are getting better," Norris said at a news conference. "The numbers don't lie. [But] we've got a long, long way to go, and we're nowhere near where we need to be in this city."
Although homicides fell below 300 in 2000, Norris' first year, the city is far behind Mayor Martin O'Malley's ambitious goal of 175 this year.
There were 217 homicides as of yesterday, compared with 207 this time last year. Last year's total was 256, the second consecutive year under 300.
"We're having trouble with murders this year," Norris said. "We're on pace to be in the 250s, 260s."
Norris, however, noted that while homicides get intense media coverage, they "usually affect only those involved in the drug trade."
"Unfortunately, I think the perception [of crime] is far different from reality," he said.
Norris said police and city leaders are "focusing the light on crime and making it a real priority," which has helped lead to a safer city. He also commended the community for aiding police in their jobs.
In an interview after the news conference, Norris said he is "still hopeful" that this year's homicide tally will be lower than last year's.
"I think we will [have fewer] this year, and I'm convinced we're going to have an even better year next year," Norris said.
He said cracking cases involving mid- and high-level drug traffickers, returning experienced homicide detectives to that department and continuing with the fugitive task force - which gets people with outstanding murder warrants off of city streets - are among initiatives designed to reduce the homicide total.
"There were so many people with murder warrants walking the streets when I got here I couldn't believe it," Norris said. "We got them off the streets and prevented future violence."
The effect of guns
Community activist Jean Yarborough said she hopes the police continue making headway in the fight against crime but wonders if they will.
"They're doing the best they can, I guess, but with the proliferation of guns, there's not much that they can do about it," said Yarborough, president of the Park Heights Networking Community Council. "The guns just seem to be coming from everywhere."
Yarborough said the city could help itself by providing more resources for youth.
"I think, until the city decides what alternatives to offer young men - especially African-American men in this city - to help make them productive citizens, I don't think much is going to change," she said.
Norris also commented on the deaths of five children and two adults in an arson at their East Preston Street home Oct. 16.
"It's the worst thing I've seen in my 23 years in law enforcement," Norris said. "I've seen children killed in cases like this, but I've never seen five killed at once. I take it personally."
Norris said he has taped a video for his officers that uses the Dawson family as "a rallying cry."
"You just can't let this go unanswered," Norris said. "I think people are really outraged by this, and people are still calling us with crime tips. I think people are going to step up, and we'll find ways to protect people better. ... I hope this horrible event will be the turning point for this city."