The Murder Epidemic

Grand plans of politicians, police fail to stem the toll

December 12, 2004|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

AS THE CLOCK ticks down the end of another year, Baltimore's homicide tally keeps mounting with deadly momentum - 266 victims as of Tuesday - rising to who knows how many by Dec. 31, but almost certainly more than last year's total of 271.

The city's annual homicide count has declined from the heights recorded a decade ago - 353 in 1993, 322 in 1995 - but gone is the optimism that accompanied a toll of slightly more than 250 as the new century began and then-new Mayor Martin O'Malley was pledging that the number would soon be down to 175.

Instead, Baltimore is one of a handful of urban areas that have seen their homicide rate remain stubbornly high even as the nation - including most of its big cities - has seen a huge reduction in killing.

Speculation on the reasons for Baltimore's persistent homicide epidemic are probably as abundant as the many experts available to comment on the situation.

"Since 1991, the [national] homicide rate has dropped farther and faster than probably any other time in U.S. history, certainly since 1900" when reliable statistics become available, says Gary Lafree, a professor in the department of criminology at the University of Maryland, College Park. "It's actually kind of remarkable. But Baltimore has not benefited from this huge decline."

Some blame mistakes made by former police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier, a nationally renowned reformer who emphasized community policing during his almost six years in the job, but whose rotation policy stripped the city's homicide division of many of its veteran members.

"One of the most damaging periods in the history of the Police Department was when Frazier was commissioner," says David Simon, a former police reporter for The Sun who wrote the books Homicide about Baltimore's homicide unit and The Corner about the drug trade. "He destroyed what was probably the most functional homicide units on the East Coast."

Others note that in the first five-year term of O'Malley - who publicly feuded with Frazier while on the City Council - law enforcement changes have verged on chaotic: four police commissioners in five years.

"You cannot accomplish anything of substance if the players in the decision-making positions change every six weeks," says Sheldon Greenberg, head of the Police Executive Leadership Program at the Johns Hopkins University. "One of the things a police department needs most is stability that can lead to a sense of purpose or mission."

Then there are the open fights between the city police and the state's attorney's office over who takes the blame for the failure to put accused murderers behind bars - as well as finger-pointing at the U.S. attorney for not taking a more aggressive approach to federal gun prosecutions.

"In both Boston and Philadelphia [where homicides declined drastically], you had a concerted effort by the entire criminal justice system to work together, to cooperate to turn the city around," says Jeffrey Ian Ross, a criminologist at the University of Baltimore.

Says Greenberg: "There is no excuse for police officials criticizing prosecutors the way they have. They are all in it together. For the sake of a few minutes worth of political gain, they are destroying a relationship critical to crime resolution."

But for every proponent of a police crime-fighting strategy leading to a drop in homicide rates, there are studies saying that such police actions have little effect, that these killings rise and fall on deeper tides that are more difficult to influence within urban societies.

Many point to a crime-fighting success as one of the roots of Baltimore's high homicide rate.

"I don't have any empirical data, it is purely anecdotal, but years ago, the drug trade in Baltimore was run essentially by a handful of people," says Jerome Deise, who teaches at the University of Maryland School of Law. "Everybody who was involved in the drug scene knew who these folks were, knew who ran the drug market.

"Then the feds came in and were extremely proud of the fact that they put these principals in jail," says Diese, who encounters many accused drug dealers in his work at the law school's legal clinic. "The problem was that created a vacuum in the market. Essentially, that allowed the situation to occur where you've got all these young punks with access to guns, fighting not for control of the city, but fighting for corners."

It is in the deadly chaos of the drug trade that most of Baltimore's homicides occur.

"Murders in the city are overwhelmingly drug trade assassinations," says Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, the city health commissioner.

He says that few of Baltimore's homicide victims are innocent bystanders caught in the crossfire.

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