A reputation not to die for

Urban Chronicle

Killings: It's fact, not fiction. Baltimore has been gaining national attention with its growing murder rate.

February 17, 2005|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

REVELATIONS that a political operative of the governor was spreading rumors about the private life of Mayor Martin O'Malley, and the mayor's comments likening the effects of federal budget cutbacks on cities to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, weren't the only developments that put Baltimore in the national spotlight last week.

The city's horrendous homicide surge was also making news from coast to coast - or, at least, on both coasts.

Two of the country's most prominent newspapers - The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times - took note of the city's mounting body count with extensive stories.

They're stories you're not likely to see links to in the mayor's weekly Neighborhood News Flash.

The New York Times story noted that Baltimore was "in line for the title of deadliest big city in the nation, with a homicide rate three times that of Los Angeles and five times that of New York."

"The persistently high homicide rate has sparked debates over whether violence has become a part of the city's fabric, as much as steamed crabs or Anne Tyler novels," the NYT wrote.

Ouch.

The Los Angeles Times - a Tribune Publishing newspaper, as we like to note here at The Sun - wrote that "Baltimore's narcotics dealers dispense crack and heroin like fast-food orders" and said, "Warring factions are killing rivals at a relentless clip."

The LAT called the city's nearly one-a-day homicide rate through the first five weeks of the year "harrowing" and said, "The revolving door at police headquarters on Fayette Street has complicated O'Malley's crime-fighting campaign, eroding officers' morale, deepening public cynicism and threatening to become a drag on the mayor's statewide political ambitions."

Then again, the story described the muscular mayor as "reed thin."

For good measure, The Boston Globe chimed in last week with a story on witness intimidation that recounted the firebombing of the house of a Harwood community leader in January and the arson fire that killed the Dawson family in Oliver in 2002.

Other cities are up in arms over homicide rates that Baltimore would envy.

I was in Philadelphia this month when The Philadelphia Inquirer ran a front-page story describing a decline in violence last year in Chicago as offering "lessons to teach that cities such as Philadelphia and Camden can learn."

And Philadelphia saw its homicide numbers decline last year, from 348 to 327. That's in a city with 1.48 million people, which works out to 22 killings for every 100,000 people.

Baltimore last year had 278 homicides in a city of 643,000 people, or 43 per 100,000 people, nearly twice the rate in Philadelphia.

Last month, I was in Dallas shortly after The Dallas Morning News ran a lengthy front-page analysis of what it called the city's "culture of murder." The story was followed by an editorial that declared, "It's action time." The city's police chief "must make an appreciable difference in Dallas' crime statistics," the editorial said. "Nothing less should be tolerated."

The 2004 homicide total that prompted the story was 248. That's in a city of 1.2 million people, or a rate of about 21 per 100,000 people, about half the rate in Baltimore.

The rash of stories about the city's crime rate brings to mind the ill-conceived, and ultimately ill-fated, resolution introduced in the City Council three years ago that called on the city to figure out how the "negative images of Baltimore as portrayed in real-life crime fiction, TV drama and movies can be counteracted."

Now, it is not fiction but fact that is driving the negative images of the city.

This City Council will have the opportunity to address the subject in a more meaningful way when Acting Police Commissioner Leonard D. Hamm comes before the council for his confirmation hearing next month.

The trick will be balancing the crying need to bring the homicide count down, while continuing to reduce other categories of crime. Yesterday at City Hall, 3rd District Councilman Robert W. Curran gave me a copy of a letter he sent this week to Hamm and O'Malley arguing for a greater police presence in part of the Northeastern Police District - not because it is being terrorized by slayings and shootings, but because it has a volume of 911 calls and because its residents pay more than their share of the city's property taxes.

It's worth grilling Hamm on how he plans to accomplish that trick and exactly what it is the Police Department wants and needs from federal officials.

And on just how far, and how fast, he realistically thinks he can drive the city's homicide numbers down.

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