Crime retains center stage

Mayoral candidates lay out plans to curb violence in city

Baltimore Votes / Primary: Sept. 11, 2007

August 26, 2007|By John Fritze | John Fritze,Sun reporter

Earlier this month, Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon held a news conference in a wood-paneled room on the second floor of City Hall to announce the expansion of a federally funded, community-based program intended to reduce homicides and shootings.

Hours after the event, Troy Richardson, a 30-year-old Baltimore County man, was gunned down in the middle of the day near Park Heights Avenue in West Baltimore. His killing was the city's 194th this year.

And on a day in late July that City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr.'s campaign launched a series of television commercials dealing with crime, police were called to Southwest Baltimore where, they say, a man had killed his wife and then rushed downstairs to repeatedly shoot his 13-year-old stepson.

As in past political seasons, crime has become a defining issue in Baltimore's Sept. 11 primary election - with the homicide count on pace to exceed 300 by the end of the year for the first time since 1999. But while the eight Democratic candidates running for mayor have talked about crime on the campaign trail, it is not clear whether any of them have a solution that will produce results quickly.

Dixon says she is working to re-establish trust with residents by focusing attention on the city's most violent criminals and increasing foot patrols. Mitchell wants to hire 400 more police and offer a 15 percent raise to officers. Schools administrator Andrey Bundley hopes to organize thousands of volunteers to descend on neighborhoods en masse, and Del. Jill P. Carter would create an advisory panel of residents, officers and ex-police commissioners.

Voters who participated in a poll conducted for The Sun earlier this summer made it clear that they believe crime is the most important issue facing the city. For Dave Briggs, chairman of the safety committee of a neighborhood group in Waverly, the answer is more police.

"Hire many cops instantly and provide the appropriate incentives to actually get them to fill the positions," Briggs said. "I just want my cops. I want cops and I want decent schools, and everything else is on the table."

Baltimore has enough money in its budget to hire 140 more police today - the police union says the number is higher - and yet the city has been unable to recruit new officers at a pace consistent with retirements and resignations. Mitchell says he believes a 15 percent pay raise would help, but it is unclear how he would fund that; it is also unclear whether it would be enough to make a difference.

Dixon wants to increase this year's recruitment goal from 240 to 300 new officers but has not said precisely how that higher goal would be met. Carter has talked about retaining officers by expanding a deferred retirement program - known as DROP - that allows police to bank and then collect their pensions for three years while they are still on the job.

Homicide rate rises

There have been 202 homicides in Baltimore this year, a 14 percent increase over the 176 that had taken place by this time in 2006. Nonfatal shootings also are up about 24 percent. Police say there has been a recent slowdown in the pace of homicides and shootings, but the reason is not clear.

The city recorded 353 homicides at its peak in 1993. Between 1993 and 1999 there was a 13 percent decrease, though the number consistently exceeded 300.

Gov. Martin O'Malley, then on the City Council, won his race for mayor in 1999 on a promise to reduce the number of homicides to 175. Though that never happened, there was a 15 percent reduction in homicides between 1999 and 2000.

Then in 2003, the number of killings began creeping back up. From 2002 to 2003 there was a 7 percent jump and in 2004 the number of homicides increased another 2 percent. The count dropped 3 percent in 2005 but then increased by an equal percentage the next year.

At times, Dixon's administration has struggled to communicate its strategy of attacking the homicide problem. It is relying on a number of federal programs, which, while effective, do not affect the vast majority of residents. Her campaign, meanwhile, is not promising any new initiatives, but vows to continue the approach she started in January.

Dixon has called for police to rebuild their tattered reputation in many of the city's hardest-hit neighborhoods, where homicides and drug-dealing remain entrenched and a culture of witness intimidation keeps many from cooperating with police. This year, the department has introduced a foot patrol initiative and an adopt-a-block program.

A police spokesman said 65 officers are walking a beat every day. About 30 of those details are covered by recent graduates of the police academy (which had walked patrols under the prior administration). The spokesman said there are 27 blocks that have been "adopted" and that officers walk those streets for an hour a day five times a week.

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