Patterns persist in city killings

Victims, suspects usually black men with long criminal histories

rate is among highest in U.S.

January 01, 2007|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,Sun reporter

Christopher Whitfield died as he lived - on the streets of Baltimore. And his demise was typical for a city steeped in violence:

He was 22, had served a short stint in prison for second-degree murder, had been on probation, been arrested several times on theft and drug charges, and was a suspected member of the Bloods gang.

Despite a seeming revitalization of several city neighborhoods, Baltimore's homicide rate remains among the highest in the country. A driving force behind this dubious distinction is that people such as Whitfield - young black men with lengthy criminal histories - continue to be killed in large numbers by others with similar backgrounds, according to police homicide figures reviewed by The Sun.

Whitfield was gunned down on Hanover Street in South Baltimore about 1 a.m. Dec. 15. As of last night, 274 people had died by homicide in Baltimore - five more than the 269 victims in 2005.

During the administration of Mayor Martin O'Malley, who took over in December 1999, the city yielded crime statistics that showed a significant reduction in violent crime. But Baltimore remained one of the deadliest cities in America last year, and public safety will likely remain a top issue for the next crop of mayoral candidates who seek election this year.

The number of homicides in Baltimore has been a persistent problem for years, dogging successive police and mayoral administrations. The number of killings was under 300 for the first time in a decade in O'Malley's first full year in office, 2000, but never went down to the 175 the mayor promised would happen by 2002.

The statistics that the Police Department's homicide division compile annually reflect a chilling consistency that continues to pose a challenge to law enforcement, city neighborhoods, school leaders and public policymakers. Whitfield's life and death fit in with many of those statistics:

In 2005, 236 of the 269 homicide victims were black. Through mid-December of 2006, 236 of 256 victims were black.

In 2005, 243 victims were men and 26 were women. In 2006, through mid-December, 231 men and 25 women were killed.

Eighty-eight people in the age range of 18 to 24 were killed in 2005. In 2006, at least 85 in that group were killed as of mid-December.

Handguns were used in 208 killings in 2005. In 2006, at least 213 victims were killed by handguns.

Of the city's 274 victims through the last week of December, 82 percent had criminal records - the same percentage as in 2005. Also, 92 percent of murder suspects had criminal records in 2006, compared with 80 percent in 2005.

Since at least 2002, about one-third of juvenile arrests in Baltimore involve drugs, with a majority of cases warranting more serious distribution charges - a steady ratio that reflects the continuing problem of teenagers' involvement in a narcotics trade that has thrived for years.

"We've really reached an equilibrium and an inertia," said Gregory Cantori, executive director of the Marion I. & Henry J. Knott Foundation, a Roman Catholic-centered organization that funds after-school programs and other human services through grants. The statistics, he said, "are basically telling you that whatever we think we're doing to make a difference isn't really working."

Baltimore's homicide rate has dipped since the 1990s, but not by much. In 1993, when the city recorded 353 homicides with a population of 724,000, the rate was 49 victims per 100,000 people. In 2005 - the most recent year for which full statistics are available - Baltimore's population of 641,000 saw its homicide rate decline to 42 victims per 100,000 people.

That compared to a less deadly rate in 2005 for far more populous cities, such as New York (seven victims per 100,000 people); Los Angeles (13 per 100,000); and Chicago (16 per 100,000). East Coast cities that were closer in size to Baltimore also had lower rates, such as Boston (13 per 100,000 people) and Washington (35 victims per 100,000).

Homicide counts in New York and Chicago rose in 2006, while Los Angeles' and Washington's numbers declined. Through late December, Boston's homicide count was the same as in 2005.

Jennifer Rosenthal, after-school program director for the Chesapeake Center for Youth Development, said that in the South Baltimore neighborhoods her agency serves, children, teenagers and young adults have few social and economic opportunities, and typically attend city schools that are a good distance from their homes. The citywide high school graduation rate is about 60 percent.

"You look at where the money has gone: a brand-new courthouse," Rosenthal said, referring to the John R. Hargrove Sr. District Court Building on East Patapsco Avenue, which opened in 2003. "That sends a message to young people: They can't have after-school programs, they can't get jobs, but they have a brand-new courthouse. I'm not trying to make it too simple, but the message kids get is loud and clear."

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