A cumulative effect

October 18, 2004

When Kareem "ManMan" Hanks was shot dead at 10:19 p.m. Sept. 28 on a West Baltimore street, he became the city's 218th homicide. At 24, Hanks was on probation for assault, according to police. The two men charged withkilling him, Kevin Dorsey, 18, and Dennis Bowers, 19, also were known to police. In fact, a couple of weeks before Hanks' death, each of them had been released on bail, supposedly to a home-monitoring system. Only nobody was monitoring the system -- not the court, not the cops, not the lawyers.

As killings in this town go, Hanks' was unremarkable: young black men allegedly involved with drugs accused of killing a young black man involved with drugs. What's striking about Murder No. 218 is that it typifies a pattern that has been operating here since at least 1997, when a Harvard criminologist, David M. Kennedy, deconstructed the city's 303 murders -- a cycle of violence among repeat offenders, mostly under 25, caught up in the drug trade.

But is anyone talking about how to get at that insidious aspect of the killing in Baltimore? As the criminal justice system struggles to keep ahead of the violence, the pathology of murder remains unchecked. Arrests are down, violent crime is down, police say, but murders are up 11 percent. It's a statistic that should upset communities, galvanize citizens and anger public officials. But that's not happening.

When Mayor Martin O'Malley took office in the winter of 1999, the push was on to drive down a murder rate that had topped 300 every year since 1989. With a new police commissioner and a New York-style crime-fighting strategy, the murder rate declined dramatically that first year and has remained under 300. But as the homicide rate now inches toward that number again, the blame game begins.

And everyone takes a turn: The police commissioner fumes about the criminal justice system's revolving door, with drug dealers serving little or no time. Judges complain about the poor quality of cases, a myopic emphasis on corner drug dealers, electronic-monitoring suspects that go unchecked, and crowded prisons. The state's attorney laments jury bias, uncooperative witnesses and lapses in the system's integrity.

Take the case of Mr. Hanks, arrested 18 times on drug, assault and handgun charges since 1999, convicted in four cases, imprisoned for no more than 18 months. He knew one of his alleged killers, Mr. Bowers, who beat an earlier murder charge after a witness disappeared and a judge ruled the murder weapon inadmissible because of an illegal search by police.

The complaints of police, prosecutors and judges are not without merit. But those people are immersed in their work, aware of the political costs of not letting up, unable to change course. What's clear is that no one is focusing on the bigger picture, on working through problems and keeping the system attuned to a safer Baltimore. What's it going to take? Murder No. 301?

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