Homicide rate rises, reversing city trend

271 killings is highest number under O'Malley

crime overall down 17%

January 01, 2004|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

The number of killings in Baltimore increased last year for the first time since 1998, reversing the downward trend in the city's most symbolic barometer of crime and prompting Mayor Martin O'Malley and his top police official to express disappointment at the stubborn homicide rate.

As of last night, the city had reported 271 killings last year, compared with 253 in 2002, a 7 percent increase and the highest homicide total during O'Malley's four-year tenure as mayor.

"We are not happy that the homicide rate went up rather than down," said O'Malley, who has made reducing killings a priority and who campaigned on a pledge to reduce annual homicide totals to 175 by 2002.

"I think we continue to make progress as a city against violent crime," O'Malley said. "I wish I could make it go down in all categories every year with mathematical steadiness and certainty."

While Baltimore experienced a rise in killings, homicide totals in suburban counties fluctuated slightly, according to preliminary data that could be modified before being submitted to the FBI and published later in the year.

Police recorded 31 killings in Baltimore County; one in Carroll; seven in Howard; five in Harford; and 24 in Anne Arundel, including five in Annapolis.

In Baltimore, which has been battling deadly violence for more than a decade, the tally for 2003 could have been higher.

Through mid-July, Baltimore was on pace to record nearly 300 homicides, a mark not seen since 1999. But the rate slowed substantially in the months that followed, and Commissioner Kevin P. Clark, who took over the top police job in February, credited the implementation of crime-fighting strategies that included intensive efforts to curtail drug dealing.

A spike in killings in December - 30 in 31 days - erased hopes of closing the year below the homicide total for 2002. There were 256 killings in 2001, 261 in 2000, 305 in 1999 and 314 in 1998.

Big `disappointment'

"Not being able to reduce homicides is probably the biggest disappointment of this year," Clark said. "The second half of the year, when a lot of our initiatives were in place, there was a swing."

Police officials have said the increase in homicides resulted, in part, from an unusually high number of victims who died in 2003 from injuries sustained earlier - 18 such deaths were recorded last year, compared with eight in 2002.

Clark said killings have become more targeted, frequently in connection with the drug trade, with gunmen hitting their victims with more bullets.

"They are not looking to shoot a guy in the leg to send a message," Clark said. "They are out to kill these guys."

Police statistics through Tuesday morning show that the percentage of those killed by multiple shots increased only slightly from 2002 - from 50 percent of gunshot deaths to 53 percent. Another indicator of execution-style killings - head shots - decreased from 50 percent to 38 percent.

To further reduce killings and curb violence associated with drug dealing - a Clark priority - the commissioner said he has been developing a detailed crime-fighting plan that should be published in the next few weeks. The proposal will revise elements of the 153-page plan devised by O'Malley and former Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris three years ago, but Clark emphasized that his main focus will continue to be driving drug dealers off street corners.

"Drugs are the common factor that binds this entire strategy," Clark said. "You have to attack drugs."

Though homicides increased, Clark and O'Malley pointed to successes in other areas.

Detectives in the department's organized crime division made more than 5,000 felony drug arrests, and calls to 911 operators reporting narcotics activity declined by 16 percent.

Police have also focused on reducing violence associated with people loitering on street corners and getting into fights. Through Dec. 20, aggravated assaults in Baltimore decreased by 19 percent - from 8,448 assaults in 2002 to 6,868 last year, according to police statistics.

Overall, crime dropped from 70,411 to 58,113 reported incidents, a 17 percent decrease; property crime fell from 42,002 to 36,584, or 13 percent; and violent crime declined from 13,878 to 11,755, or 15 percent. Nonfatal shootings fell 12 percent, from 596 reported incidents in 2002 to 527 last year.

"The progress we've made isn't something to be sneezed at," O'Malley said.

In the suburbs

Most suburban jurisdictions also posted decreases in crime.

Baltimore County, where there were two more murders than in 2002, reported declines in three closely monitored categories - burglaries dropped 7 percent, robberies 17 percent and auto thefts 7 percent, according to preliminary statistics. County police credit community support - residents reporting crimes and suspicious activities, and programs such as citizens on patrol - and more focused enforcement.

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