City passes '05 homicide total

2 Christmas weekend killings give Baltimore 270 for the year

December 26, 2006|By Sumathi Reddy and Julie Scharper | Sumathi Reddy and Julie Scharper,Sun reporters

With six days left in the year, a pair of Christmas weekend homicides pushed the number of homicides in Baltimore this year past the total for 2005, city police said yesterday.

The city has recorded 270 homicides, one more than in 2005.

The most recent victim was Stephen Brunson, 37, whose body was found shortly before 10 p.m. Sunday in the yard of a house in the 2900 block of Silver Hill Ave. in Gwynn Oak, said a police spokeswoman, Officer Nicole Monroe. Investigators believe Brunson was killed elsewhere and his body taken to where it was found, she said.

A relative had recently reported Brunson missing, Monroe said. She did not release more information about the circumstances surrounding his death.

Yesterday, police announced they had identified a body found in Leakin Park on Saturday as Freddie Thornton, a 69-year-old city resident. He had been stabbed repeatedly, police said.

Last year, Baltimore saw a slight decline in the number of homicides compared with 2004; the city had posted increases the previous two years.

The homicide rate is still significantly lower than its peak in the mid-1990s, when more than 300 people were killed each year, but far from the goal of 175 per year that Mayor Martin O'Malley set when he took office.

How to battle the city's stubborn homicide rate is sure to be a key issue in next year's mayoral race, which already has five candidates.

Among them is City Council President Sheila Dixon, who will serve out the remainder of governor-elect O'Malley's term.

In a statement yesterday, Dixon sent her "deepest sympathies" to the families and loved ones of the victims.

Dixon said there needs to be an improved relationship between the Police Department, the state's attorney's office and the court system. "I think that these changes, along with supporting consistency in the leadership of the police department and consistency in crime-fighting strategies, will allow us to attack the homicide rate in the same way that we have successfully attacked and lowered other areas of crime in Baltimore."

Del. Jill P. Carter, who represents the 41st District in Northwest Baltimore and plans to run for mayor, also expressed sympathy for the victims' families and said failed police policies - such as mass arrests that do not lead to prosecution - are a contributing factor to such tragedies.

"It's unfortunate and it's tragic, but until we change what we know is a failed policy in the Police Department, I don't think we're going to see any real change or improvement," said Carter. "When the focus becomes serving and protecting, and not illegal arrests and other unproductive practices, I think we'll see some change."

Baltimore Circuit Court Clerk Frank M. Conaway, who also plans to run for mayor, said the only way to cut down on crime, including homicide, is through more foot patrolmen in violent neighborhoods and increased community policing.

A Police Department spokesman blamed the homicide rate on a culture that discourages people from seeking the help of police.

"It's hard to help people who don't want your help," said police spokesman Matt Jablow, adding that more than 80 percent of city homicide victims have criminal records. The average homicide victim has been arrested 8.6 times, he said.

"All too many times there will be a shooting, a nonfatal shooting, and in the course of our investigation we'll talk to the person, and they won't cooperate with us," he said. "And in a few weeks or months they'll show up dead."

Neither Brunson nor Thornton had been convicted of a crime, according to Maryland court records.

Despite the increase in homicides, Baltimore's violent crime rate has decreased by 6 percent and overall crime has fallen 3 percent, Jablow said.

Yet police are concerned that significantly more young people have been killed this year than last year, he said.

"Our 2007 crime-fighting strategy is going to address a lot of juvenile issues," Jablow said.

The increased number of homicides in Baltimore reflects national trends. According to the FBI's Web site, the country's homicide rate inched up 1.4 percent in the first half of the year.

Homicides have increased most in the city's central district, where the number of homicides is 20 - 54 percent more than last year, according to police statistics through Dec. 16. Other districts with large increases include the Southern District, which showed a 30 percent increase with 35 killings through Dec. 16, and the Northwestern District, which posted a 14 percent increase with 33 homicides.

The statistics show that the Eastern District had posted the highest number of homicides as of Dec. 16, with 43 - a 23 percent increase from last year.

City Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr., who is vice chairman of the public safety subcommittee and is considering a run for higher office, said he is pushing legislation to combat crime, including homicide, by moving some of the officers in specialized units to the district offices.

Harris said the Police Department also needs more officers to cut down on overtime overruns. "My question is, `Have we been wise in how we allocate resources and dollars and how we fight crime?' and my answer is `No, we have not,'" Harris said.

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