City sees a brief homicide respite

Killing yesterday breaks the longest streak -- 7 days -- without a slaying since start of 2006

October 06, 2007|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,Sun reporter

This week, Baltimore experienced its longest stretch without a homicide since at least the start of 2006.

After Jason Fortune was fatally shot Sept. 28 near Lafayette Square, no one was killed in the city until yesterday evening, when a man was shot to death inside a house on Eutaw Place.

This year, the city is on pace to log more than 300 killings for the first time since the mid-1990s. Four times this year there have been four killings in a single day. Marking a full week without a homicide was a noteworthy respite.

Perhaps it was a honeymoon period for the city's new police commissioner, Frederick H. Bealefeld III, who was selected this week to move from acting status to the permanent top job.

Mayor Sheila Dixon thinks it may be something more. She said she picked Bealefeld in part because he has driven a noticeable reduction in crime since assuming the interim position July 19.

That day - coincidentally - the city began its second-longest streak of no homicides of the year. And in the 2 1/2 months since then, both the homicide and nonfatal shooting rates have been slower than during the same period last year.

From July 20 until yesterday, there were 54 homicides and 106 nonfatal shootings, compared with 65 homicides and 159 shootings in the same period last year.

It's too early to tell whether the decreases are an insignificant blip in the overall statistics or mark the beginning of a downward trend, said Ralph B. Taylor, a criminal justice professor at Temple University in Philadelphia.

"Time will tell," Taylor said. "Might your new commissioner be responsible for some of the new improvement? It's possible."

Because homicides are a small number relative to other crimes, the pace tends to fluctuate a lot, Taylor said. "But even a small amount of time without a homicide is hugely important and good news," he said.

Bealefeld, who says he likes to "shout good news from the top of the building," hasn't been shy about pointing to the lull in homicides and the slowing rate of shootings.

His interviews with reporters on the subject have left some police officers wincing for fear that he'll jinx the city. (Indeed, a few hours after Bealefeld was interviewed yesterday, a police spokesman called to say the streak was over.)

"If I believed this was luck or a voodoo magic act, I'd shut up about it," Bealefeld said.

He and others pointed to several reasons that could account for the decline in violence: residents calling for change; newly formed partnerships between police and other agencies; and altered policing strategies.

After her son was badly injured in a stabbing this year, Kathryn Cooper-Nicholas organized a mothers' prayer vigil last month. She said the response was so positive that she has decided to replicate it on the first Saturday of each month.

This morning, after praying at known drug corners, Cooper-Nicholas and other women will gather at police headquarters.

"The people who live in these neighborhoods were coming out to thank us for praying for them," she said. "They are feeling pretty isolated, like no one cares. Caring is a positive in itself."

Bealefeld said he believes that demoralized community activists who might have felt beaten down in past years are beginning to get involved again.

"People are saying, `It's got to stop; it's got to change,'" he said.

That sentiment, he said, is buoyed by programs such as Operation Safe Streets, a city Health Department effort to steer residents away from crime by helping them find jobs, substance abuse treatment and other assistance.

Shuttering the Top Shelf bar in Southwest Baltimore was another collaboration, this one with the city solicitor's office, that Bealefeld said would have an impact on crime. Three people had been killed there since 2004, and the bar had a history of serving alcohol to underage youths.

However brief, any respite in killings is helpful to the city's 48 homicide detectives, said Major Frederick H. Taber Jr., who oversees the homicide section.

By year's end, he said, each detective will have had between five and eight cases - much higher than the national average of three, Taber said.

His detectives have closed about 35 percent of this year's homicides, he said. They've closed 118 cases, 37 from killings that happened in previous years.

"What we were facing at the beginning of the year, with the new cases coming in so quick - this is giving us a little bit of breathing room," Taber said. "If the tide continues to slow, we're going to have more opportunity to work the cases and close them faster."

Taber said he thought Bealefeld's personnel redeployments, particularly saturating the busy east and west sides with foot-patrol officers, were a factor in the decrease in violence. Bealefeld's 26 years in the department, Taber said, will guide him in making decisions that affect the crime rate.

Of this week's calmness, Bealefeld said: "We're not there yet. We're not even close. But we've started, and that really is the key."

julie.bykowicz@baltsun.com

Quiet streets

Since Jan. 1, 2006, here are the longest periods Baltimore has gone without a homicide:

Seven days

Sept. 28-Oct. 5, 2007

Six days July 19-25, 2007 Jan. 24-30, 2006

Five days

April 12-17, 2007 April 2-7, 2007 Feb. 11-16, 2007 Feb. 2-7, 2007 Dec. 11-16, 2006 March 7-12, 2006 Feb. 22-27, 2006 Jan. 3-8, 2006

Sun review of statistics provided by Baltimore Police Department

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