277th killing in '07 is grim milestone

City's homicide total surpasses all of last year

December 21, 2007|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,Sun reporter

Six hours after another man fell to another shooting in Baltimore, detectives were back on South Paca Street in the daylight yesterday, scouring sidewalks and patches of grass near a tattered city tennis court for clues.

The four investigators still didn't know the name of the victim or his age. It was, in many ways, a typical Baltimore homicide - a man shot several times and left on a bloodied Southwest Baltimore corner, leaving police with no apparent motive and no suspects.

"Right now, all we know is it's a dead guy in the street," said Detective Charles Bealefeld.

The victim, however, was the 277th person killed in the city this year, surpassing last year's number of 276 and serving as another reminder of the violence that has made Baltimore consistently one of the most violent cities in the nation.

The man's death marked a disappointing trend - the second year in a row that the city's homicide count has edged up, and the worst year since 1999, when the city had 305 killings. But despite this year's grim milestone, there is quiet recognition among police and city officials that 2007 could have been far worse.

In the first several months of the year, the city's homicide rate had spiked to about one a day. Officials were not only concerned about the city reaching 300 homicides for the year but going well past it in what would widely have been seen as a devastating blow for a city struggling to maintain a renaissance.

With the city skyline looming in the background, Bealefeld walked the street with fellow detectives yesterday, looking for people who might have seen or heard something a few hours earlier. The detective happens to be the brother of the latest police leader tasked by the latest mayor with reducing crime - Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III.

While the younger Bealefeld worked the homicide, the older Bealefeld was busy lauding officers in a promotions ceremony.

"We fight every single day for zero homicides," Commissioner Bealefeld said in an interview after the event. "I was equally sad at No. 19. The body count is so undermining. It reinforces negative beliefs and stereotypes the city as bad."

"Positive things are happening here - economic growth," he said. "But we are overshadowed by the homicide rate and the daily body count."

"One loss is too many," said Mayor Sheila Dixon in an interview after the ceremony. "How do you expect the police department and the government to control everything? We have got to get to the root of someone respecting another human being. There is some real systemic stuff we have to deal with."

Reaching 300 homicides by the end of the year is still a possibility, but increasingly unlikely. The police department tracks homicide trends day by day, week by week, month by month. This month, there have been 10 homicides recorded in 20 days, a police spokesman said.

Past Decembers in Baltimore have been worse. Last December, 28 people were killed in the city, police said. In the same month two years ago, 20 people were killed, according to police statistics.

The rising homicide rate in the first half of the year may have cost Leonard D. Hamm, the former police commissioner, his job in July. In Hamm's place, Dixon turned to Bealefeld, a 26-year veteran.

Since he took on the job, homicides and nonfatal shootings - the two most closely watched indicators of city crime - have dropped significantly. From mid-July to mid-December this year, there were 97 homicides - 15 fewer killings than during the same period a year earlier, according to police statistics.

Nonfatal shootings during the same period this year stood at 208 - nearly 100 fewer victims than during the same period a year ago, police statistics show.

This year, police officials launched foot patrols in some city neighborhoods, a gun offender task force and a more concerted effort to target known repeat violent offenders with the help of city prosecutors and parole and probation officers.

Federal authorities have also taken a bigger role in prosecuting violent crimes over the past year.

"Who deserves the credit? Don't know," said Ralph B. Taylor, a criminologist at Temple University in Philadelphia, who noted that Baltimore also saw a slowdown in violent crime in recent months. "Do the police deserve at least partial credit? Probably. The challenge will be for the police to continue to adapt as the criminals wise up and change what they do."

The latest killing that Bealefeld, the homicide detective, and others investigated happened about 3:15 a.m. yesterday.

Police officers received a report of a shooting and rushed to the Mount Winans neighborhood. They found a bloodied man lying on a curb, suffering from several gunshot wounds. Paramedics arrived and pronounced the man dead at the scene.

Unlike other neighborhoods in the city where entrenched, drug-related violence routinely claims several lives in a year, it was the first homicide this year in the working-class Mount Winans.

Across one street from the corner where the man died is a vacant block of public housing apartments boarded up by the city.

The corner where the man was found is next to the beginning of a row of townhouses, some with well-kept lawns adorned with holiday decorations. The sidewalk where the man collapsed still had faint spots of blood yesterday morning.

gus.sentementes@baltsun.com

Sun reporters Julie Bykowicz and David Kohn contributed to this article.

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