Rise in violent city crime takes officials by surprise

O'Malley says FBI figures subject to interpretation

June 08, 2005|By Ryan Davis | Ryan Davis,SUN STAFF

Violent crime in Baltimore increased last year for the first time since 1999, according to new FBI statistics that surprised even the city's police commissioner.

The 4 percent increase over 2003, an uptick that city officials scrambled to explain yesterday, opens the door for opponents to criticize Mayor Martin O'Malley, politicians and political scientists said. The presumed Democratic gubernatorial candidate has made crime-fighting a centerpiece of his political career.

"If violent crime is up 4 percent, that is the most important problem in the city of Baltimore," said Audra Miller, a spokeswoman for the state Republican Party. "Clearly, it demonstrates that Martin O'Malley cannot deliver on his grand promises."

O'Malley said there are different ways to measure crime and some show it was down in the city last year. A broader view, he said, shows that city crime has fallen 40 percent since he took office in 1999.

"All of us know we're not happy with last year," the mayor said. "It was a disappointing year for us. We do feel we're back on track this year. We've had some encouraging trends."

Political scientists and criminologists said the new figures might have their most significance politically.

"It means," said Donald F. Norris, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, "that the opposition can claim crime has gone up in Baltimore and be correct."

Ralph Taylor, a criminology professor at Temple University, said that rather than comparing year-by-year, it's much more significant to look at long-term trends in crime, such as what has occurred since O'Malley took office in 1999.

"Crime bounces up and down; it's kind of like the stock market," said Taylor, the author of a book about Baltimore crime. "What you've done is you've taken two snapshots out of a movie."

National compilation

The Baltimore figures were released as a part of an annual statistic compilation by the FBI showing that, across the country, violent crime decreased 1.7 percent from 2003 to 2004. Property crime dropped 1.8 percent over the same period.

In Baltimore, violent crime climbed 4.3 percent and property crime fell 3.8 percent, the figures show.

Murders, rapes, robberies and aggravated assaults make up violent crime. Burglaries, larcenies and auto thefts are the property crimes.

Baltimore remained one of the country's deadliest cities. There was one killing for about every 6,500 residents in Chicago, and one killing for about every 14,550 residents in New York. In Baltimore, there was one killing for about every 2,350 residents.

The numbers are compiled by local police departments and provided through the states to the FBI. It is a voluntary process. These recent numbers are not broken down by state.

But even though Hamm's agency compiled the statistics, the commissioner was caught off guard yesterday when asked about the reported increase.

During a news conference about an unrelated gun program, reporters asked why police and O'Malley have repeatedly stated that violent crime dropped last year while the FBI figures show that violence increased.

Police officials said initially that the new figures were incorrect. Then they said the new numbers were, indeed, what they reported to the FBI - even though the police commissioner hadn't been notified.

They surmised that the numbers had been changed during an internal audit. Then, they offered another explanation.

Police spokesman Matt Jablow said the FBI and city police compile statistics in different ways. The FBI counts incidents, but the city police count the number of victims.

Also, he said, 1,100 crimes in 2003 were reported late to the FBI because of technical problems caused by Tropical Storm Isabel. That artificially decreased the 2003 numbers while increasing those for 2004, Jablow said: "We still say [crime] is down."

FBI officials declined to comment specifically on the explanations offered by the Baltimore police. But agency spokesman Paul Bresson said that it's possible for crimes to be reported late and for departments to rely on different calculation methods.

The crime numbers are of particular significance to O'Malley, who prides himself on a government that closely monitors statistics and who accused police officials under his predecessor of underreporting shootings.

O'Malley ran for office in 1999 on a promise to reduce the annual homicide count to 175. He has repeatedly championed reductions in violent crime; and FBI statistics show it has dropped 25.7 percent since 1998.

His administration regularly points to statistics showing that since 1999, Baltimore's violent crime has dropped more than that of any other large city. And police officials said that violent crime is down 10 percent this year compared with the same point last year.

But in light of the new statistics, a spokeswoman for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. repeated past assertions that O'Malley should focus on crime reduction.

"The bottom line is there needs to be less whining and finger-pointing and more brainstorming on how to reduce Baltimore violent crime," said spokeswoman Shareese DeLeaver.

No surprise

Some City Council members said yesterday that they weren't surprised by the increase. Bernard C. "Jack" Young said it only figures that if homicides increased from 253 in 2002, to 271 in 2003, to 278 last year, violent crime also increased.

Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr. attributed the increase to distractions in the department. Then-Commissioner Kevin P. Clark was suspended in May after a domestic dispute and, although he returned to work, he was fired in November. With his replacement, Hamm, came a change in commanders.

"There was just too much turmoil going on with the agency," Harris said. "The internal distractions had an impact on our ability to remain focused and keep crime down."

Sun staff writer William Wan contributed to this article.

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