Searching For Answers

The numbers look bleak for city mired in murder, and no approach has brought lasting success

Confronting Crime / The Battle For Baltimore's Future

December 30, 2007|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,Sun reporter

For the second year in a row, more Baltimore families have suffered through the murder of a loved one than in the previous year.

The increase, though slight, underscores a troubling trend in homicides that leaves Baltimore standing virtually alone among major American cities.

Since 1990, Baltimore's homicide rate, the number of killings per 100,000 residents, has stayed consistently high, while most other U.S. cities have seen their numbers drop in the years since crack cocaine-related crime was at its worst.

"Baltimore has a singularly challenging street scene, and that's what makes it so dangerous and so resistant to crime-fighting steps that seem like they should work," said David Kennedy, director of the crime prevention program at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. Kennedy studied crime in Baltimore in the late 1990s.

Many cities have felt the effects of deindustrialization, poverty, the flight of the middle class, struggling schools and drugs. But few cities, Kennedy and other experts say, have had to contend with those problems in tandem with unrelenting, multi-generational heroin addiction.

So 2007, like so many years before it, brought killings of all types - domestic shootings, robberies that turned unexpectedly violent, and, most of all, killings related to the drug trade. After a six-month surge in homicides, the pace slowed in the latter half of the year amid changes in law enforcement and a handful of new programs. That, combined with reductions in other categories of violent crime, produced at least a glimmer of hope.

Nevertheless, frustrated politicians, police officers and residents of neighborhoods across the city are still left asking one question: Why hasn't Baltimore been able to stanch the bleeding?

For all of the changes since 1990 - three mayors, seven police commissioners and crime strategies ranging from sweeping arrests to targeted enforcement - Baltimore's homicide rate now is basically what it was then: about 40 killings per 100,000 residents.

And for all of the euphoria in 2000, when the city dipped below 300 murders for the first time in a decade, the feel-good victory was statistically meaningless: Because of population loss, the city had simply returned to the same murder rate it had in 1990.

"It's outrageous, what we tolerate," said Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy.

With 282 homicides so far this year, and 276 for all of 2006, Baltimore now posts a homicide rate more than triple the average of cities of 250,000 residents or more, according to FBI uniform crime reports. Last year, it was second only to Detroit.

Some rates recede

By comparison, homicide rates in Chicago, Boston, Houston and Los Angeles are about half now what they were in 1990. Washington, once dubbed the nation's murder capital, sliced its rate even more. And New York City has seen the most stunning drop. In 2006, its rate was about seven killings per 100,000 residents - about one-fourth of its homicide rate in 1990.

Even Detroit, which most often vies with Baltimore in the media as the most murderous city in the nation, has seen marked declines in homicides.

Much smaller cities, such as Oakland, Calif., and Newark, N.J., continue to struggle in a way similar to Baltimore, and years' worth of gains in Philadelphia are in jeopardy this year, though that city's homicide rate remains lower than Baltimore's.

City officials and national experts who study crime trends say there is no one explanation, instead offering up such factors as the prevalence of heroin, the breakdown of families and communities, inconsistent policing strategies and a dearth of jobs and drug treatment.

The city's geography and demography, with thriving neighborhoods hemmed in by crime-ridden ones, as well as its location along Interstate 95, a drug corridor between Washington and New York, may also be part of the equation.

"We're a smaller city, and there's simply a larger percentage of folks involved in nefarious business," said Richard C. Fahlteich, who retired last year as a major after 33 years with the Baltimore Police Department.

"It portends to be a law enforcement problem," Fahlteich said of the homicide rate. "But having spent 15 years in homicide, I am convinced that it is a socioeconomic problem."

More than 8,200 people have been killed in Baltimore in the past three decades, most of them young black men. Police officials say that many have criminal records and are engaged in illicit activities - and that the majority of city residents are at an extremely low risk of being killed. When it comes to homicides, Baltimore is often seen as two cities, with its thriving, gentrified neighborhoods virtually untouched by serious crime.

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