WITH JUST 14 days left in the year, it's highly unlikely that Baltimore's murder rate will hit 300. But it doesn't really matter. When police responded to a fatal shooting in the 1800 block of E. Chase St. on Wednesday evening, the city hit the total number of murders recorded for all of last year - 271. That's the relevant number because it marks yet another year in which the city homicide rate rose. The murder tally can only go up, and 2004 can only go down as a more deadly year than the last.
The fact that the 271st homicide victim was initially recorded as a "John Doe" reminds us of how elusive solving this aspect of Baltimore's crime problem can be. Although police have recorded a whopping 41 percent drop in violent crime since 1999, a reduction unmatched by the 25 largest cities, the violence that results in murder remains a nagging constant.
The anonymity of Murder Victim No. 271 also reminds us of how familiar these killings are in certain parts of town. Mr. 271 was killed in the Eastern District, which leads the city in homicides. The Police Department's ability to map crime with computer technology enables it to deploy its resources where needed most. The goal: to attack crime where it is most prevalent. But flooding the Eastern District with more police officers doesn't necessarily result in fewer murders. While overall crime there dropped 12 percent from last year and violent crime declined 6 percent, murders rose 32 percent.
A different picture emerges in the Western District, where police say overall crime dropped 10 percent, shootings were down 12 percent and murders declined 24 percent. The murder business can be beat, if not always consistently.
Since the 1990s, when murders in Baltimore exceeded 300, the homicide rate has become a measure of the city's well-being. And that indicator persists, perhaps unfairly so. A majority of the city's murder victims and suspects hail from an exclusive club: drug traffickers, dealers and addicts. A good portion have been juveniles. A tough drug enforcement strategy was seen as the key to combating that violence. But as police commissioners have come and gone in the past five years, the strategy shifted. Now, under acting Commissioner Leonard D. Hamm, police are targeting the most violent offenders. It's not a new strategy, but one that should be vigorously pursued in a city where drug enforcers are known to kill and kill and kill again - and often to get away with it.