Baltimore homicide total falls, but barely

Mayor had hoped to keep killings under 175 for year

January 01, 2003|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

A spike in juvenile killings and a surge in East Baltimore's deadly violence kept the city's homicide total from budging much in 2002, disappointing city leaders who had hoped to reduce the most symbolic barometer of crime.

The stagnant homicide total - 253 vs. 256 in 2001 - occurred during a year that Mayor Martin O'Malley had set an ambitious goal: to keep killings below 175 for the first time since 1977.

Despite disillusionment over the homicide figure, O'Malley and police leaders said they were optimistic about decreasing killings and further reducing violence this year.

Violent crime dropped 8 percent in 2002 and has plummeted 30 percent since 1999 - one of the largest decreases in the nation.

"We want to continue the violent crime reduction and get the homicide rate to fall," O'Malley said this week. "Hopefully, we can turn around the spike in juvenile murders."

O'Malley and city police officers have a formidable task ahead of them.

Last month, the mayor lost the chief architect of his crime-fighting strategies when Commissioner Edward T. Norris left to join the Maryland State Police.

O'Malley toils in one of the most drug-addicted, violent and deadly cities in the country, which sometimes confounds well-planned tactics.

Last year, for example, killings surged 60 percent in the Eastern District - from 38 in 2001 to 61 last year - despite a stepped-up police presence in the area since 2000.

The 3,300-member force is also $6 million over its allotted $287 million budget and expects to run a deficit between $10 million and $14 million when the fiscal year ends in July.

That deficit will force commanders to curtail overtime, which some police officials credit with keeping the city's violence in check during an intense deployment initiative in the last three months of 2002.

Acting Police Commissioner John McEntee says he will work within the budget by carefully deploying troops and reshuffling administrative assignments to get more officers on the street.

"The budget and the crime - unfortunately, one is tied in with the other," McEntee said.

Juvenile offenders

McEntee and O'Malley said they plan to attack more drug corners and find better ways to monitor juveniles who violate curfew and terms of home detention. Last year, 35 youths were killed - up from 18 in 2001.

The acting commissioner said police would continue a rigorous program that pushes commanders to reduce crime in their districts. Many experts who have studied crime reduction credit the process with cutting crime in Baltimore and several other cities.

McEntee also plans to beef up the department's community affairs division, enhance the city's neighborhood watch programs and put about 18 more officers on foot patrols throughout Baltimore.

Those efforts, he said, aim to improve relationships with residents and are not a departure from previous tactics that focused heavily on patrols and arrests.

"The communities have been patient for the last three years when we started this crime-reduction plan," McEntee said. "We still have to lock up bad guys and reduce crime.

"But I think we can provide some relief and get the community involved to help us accomplish that a little more than we've done in the past. After a three-year, 30 percent reduction in crime, I think we can afford that."

Lawmakers weigh in

City Council members said they support the move to bolster the department's community affairs division and want McEntee to continue aggressive policing tactics.

Though pleased by last year's reductions in violence, they were disappointed by the stagnant homicide total even though it has remained below 300 for three straight years. The last time that happened was in the late 1980s.

"My main concern is that we keep pumping up those numbers - that crime went down - but murders have not decreased," said City Council President Sheila Dixon. "We have to rethink some things."

Dixon and other council members also worried that police were too focused on high-crime areas - during the last three months of the year, officers flooded 14 areas responsible for 37 percent of shootings and homicides. The effort cost the department $2.5 million in overtime.

"We have to maintain the areas where crime is down," said Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr. "We're risking the possibility of having crime creep into areas where you don't have the resources."

30-year veteran

The responsibility of reducing crime further rests with McEntee, 48, a 30-year veteran who most recently ran the day-to-day operations of the department as a deputy commissioner.

By choosing McEntee as acting commissioner, O'Malley emphasized his desire to continue crime-fighting strategies developed during the past three years. O'Malley has said he will not decide on a permanent replacement for Norris until sometime in the next few months.

McEntee says he doesn't feel the pressure of what many inside the department perceive as a tryout.

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