Crime, a constant yield

January 01, 2008

Ending the year with fewer than 300 murders in Baltimore is no achievement. More people were killed in the city in 2007 than in the year before, and though the increase was marginal, that statistic is what keeps Baltimore in a class by itself, because, truth be told, the city's homicide rate is basically unchanged since 1990. It's a confounding problem that leaves a select few neighborhoods hostage to violence even as violent crime across the city has dropped.

The reasons for the steady pace include a variety of factors, notably a decades-long addiction to heroin, concentration of poverty and fewer middle-class residents. Crime and addiction are family matters and families are paying the price in victims, suspects and imprisoned felons.

Leadership and manpower issues at the Police Department also were factors in effecting a consistent crime-fighting strategy; 2007 was the year that the city police modified their time-consuming arrest policy on quality of life offenses, and for good reason, as about a third were never prosecuted.

The second half of the year also saw a shift in how the department deployed its resources - a critical and overdue change - and the rate of homicides slowed as police targeted gun violence, repeat offenders and serial suspects.

Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III has to remain flexible in deploying his people and managing the department's technology to sustain these recent gains.

But bringing Baltimore's homicide rate into line with other cities of its size also requires a concerted, coordinated effort by many players who must be smarter, cagier and more ambitious with the resources at in hand. It means working closely with state probation agents to get offenders off the street, targeting gun felons with city prosecutors, and referring violent offenders to the federal system. It means ensuring drug addicts have access to treatment and follow-up care and providing intensive counseling and services to juveniles at risk of violence.

Among the promising initiatives under way are two small Health Department-sponsored programs that seek to mediate disputes before they turn violent. Plans to expand these and independently evaluate their impact in the next year will help shape the city's evolving response to crime.

Evolving is the operative word here. There's no magic formula, and proven strategies must be consistently deployed to bring long-term gains and relief.

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