Homicide toll reaches last year's total in city

Baltimore could see 2nd consecutive increase

December 17, 2004|By Ryan Davis | Ryan Davis,SUN STAFF

Baltimore recorded its 271st killing this week, equaling last year's homicide toll and virtually assuring that this year will be the city's deadliest since 1999.

After sweeping into office five years ago with a promise to reduce violent crime, Mayor Martin O'Malley saw the homicide rate - the most visible indicator of violent crime - fall for three consecutive years. This year will almost certainly mark the fifth consecutive year with fewer than 300 homicides, but it will also be the city's second consecutive annual increase.

The mayor says the homicide rate has made it difficult for him to sell his message that violent crime in Baltimore is decreasing. He held a news conference in October to say violent crime had dropped 40 percent since 1999. But at a recent social event, a woman refused to shake the mayor's hand.

"Her friend pulled me aside and said, `It's not you. It's just that whenever she hears you talking about how crime is coming down, she gets upset because her son was murdered two years ago and for her, crime will never ever be down,'" O'Malley said.

To reduce crime, many leaders have called for cooperation. But the spike in homicides late this summer prompted high-level finger pointing.

Then-Police Commissioner Kevin P. Clark criticized the prosecutors and judges. O'Malley criticized U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio. State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy pointed a finger at judges.

Criminologists agree that a mayor and his police commissioners cannot be held solely - or even largely - responsible for killings, but O'Malley permanently connected himself to the homicide number when he declared that he would reduce the body count to 175 a year by 2002.

Though criminologists emphasize that homicides are not the best barometer of violent crime, they say statistics on killings are often the only verifiable number that does not allow for police discretion. In fact, O'Malley rose to prominence as a councilman in the 1990s when he challenged the shooting statistics provided by then-Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and then-Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier.

The 1990s were the city's bloodiest decade, with more than 300 people killed each year. In 2000, the number dropped to 261. It hit a floor at 253 in 2002 and rose last year to 271.

"It's easy to become overwhelmed by the numbers," Jessamy said. "But we're always trying to put names and faces to each and every homicide. It's important for the community to do this, too."

O'Malley says that by setting a lofty goal, he has succeeded in raising the city's expectations.

But the recent reversal in course has left many politicians and law enforcement officials seeking answers.

"One of our biggest problems we've had is really all the distractions going on in the Police Department," said Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr.

In December 2002, then-Commissioner Edward T. Norris left the city for the state police under a cloud of suspicion that eventually led to his guilty plea to federal corruption charges. In January 2003, Clark was named his surprise successor, signaling that O'Malley had chosen another New Yorker over the expected internal candidate.

This May, Clark was involved in a domestic dispute at his house. Internal investigations into the commanders who handled the dispute lingered through the summer. Last month, O'Malley fired Clark and said the unsubstantiated domestic violence allegations had eroded Clark's leadership ability. Clark then filed a $120 million lawsuit against the mayor.

Leonard D. Hamm is serving as the acting police commissioner, and if he's confirmed, the homicide number is among his top challenges. He said upon taking over as acting commissioner that he didn't believe the number was the best judge of crime but that he would monitor it closely because he recognized its significance.

He has begun to publicly point out his progress. At a city Criminal Justice Coordinating Council meeting this month, he announced a 9 percent decrease in homicides for his first four weeks as commissioner compared with the four weeks preceding his appointment.

"We're beginning to turn the homicide number around," said police spokesman Matt Jablow.

So far this month, there have been eight homicides - with one having been ruled justifiable. Last year the city recorded 30 killings in December, the deadliest month under Clark.

Counting homicides would seem to be a clear-cut task. But police had counted 270 homicides when the death of a South Baltimore man was ruled a homicide Sunday. That seemed to make 271 victims, but then police reduced the count by one as it was determined that a Dec. 3 killing was justified. The victim fell to his death while attempting to break into a West Baltimore home.

With that adjustment, the killing Wednesday night of Jason Jerod Willis, 22, of the 1900 block of E. Chase St. marked the city's 271st killing. Willis was robbed and shot a block from his East Baltimore home, police said.

Last year, the city recorded 271 killings, though only 270 counted in the FBI crime data. Police officials were not certain yesterday of the cause of that discrepancy.

Sun staff writers Julie Bykowicz, Laura Vozzella and Richard Irwin contributed to this article.

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