Killing pace slows in city

Police strategies credited for prospect of lowest homicide rate since 1988

June 29, 2008|By Annie Linskey and Nick Madigan | Annie Linskey and Nick Madigan,Sun Reporters

The Barclay neighborhood is like much of blighted Baltimore. Gang graffiti cover vacant rowhouses. Blue-light police surveillance cameras twinkle overhead at night. And residents have witnessed plenty of bloodshed - last year 10 people were gunned down there.

But this year something has changed in the community just south of quiet Charles Village. There's been just one homicide, a stabbing in January.

"You feel more comfortable," Solomon Rose, 59, said last week while sitting on the front steps of his Brentwood Avenue house. "At nighttime, we used to go inside when it got dark. Now, not so much. The gangs used to run through here, knocking kids down."

It's a pattern that many other neighborhoods are seeing, despite Friday's killing of the former police commissioner's stepdaughter and last weekend's high-profile homicides in Federal Hill and West Baltimore. In the first six months of this year, the pace of killings and shootings in Baltimore has slowed significantly - a trend that officials attribute to new crime-fighting strategies, including a focus on the city's most violent criminals. If that trend continues, the city could register the lowest homicide rate since 1988, a year before crack cocaine-fueled violence hit America's inner cities.

There have been 104 homicides in the city by Friday, compared with 153 at this time last year. Shootings are down by 26 percent over last year, from 361 to 266 as of Friday. Meanwhile, rates of other violent crime, including assaults, rapes and robberies, has not changed much since 2007, police statistics show.

"There is something really special going on in Baltimore," said David Kennedy, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York who is familiar with crime patterns in Baltimore. "You are seeing reductions in the worst violent crime and not so much in the other crime. There is something particular going on with the kind of violent crime that has plagued Baltimore for such a long time."

Kennedy and other experts rejected the notion that the falling homicide and shooting numbers could be flukes.

"You don't get rid of 50 homicides without something fundamental going on," Kennedy said.

But even the Police Department's biggest cheerleaders remain cautious, recognizing that the summer months in Baltimore tend to be the most violent.

Some cities have seen increases in homicide rates this year, with a 10 percent rise in Los Angeles and a 7.6 percent rise in New York, which posted a record low in 2007. Philadelphia has had a 20 percent decrease in homicides and Washington, D.C., has posted a 1 percent decrease.

Theories vary about the drop in Baltimore. But dozens of on- and off-the-record conversations with police officers, commanders and prosecutors touched on a central theme: a police focus on gathering intelligence about a small circle of violent people and more effectively acting on the information to build strong cases against them.

That plan emerged last year when Mayor Sheila Dixon directed police to find and imprison the city's most violent residents. Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III, who assumed control of the department last July amid an upswing in murders, pulled roughly 250 officers into a group called the Violent Crime Impact Division.

Fifty of that division's officers were sent to the Eastern District (they also work in Barclay, though it is technically in the Northern) and another 50 went to the Western District armed with lists of people with violent criminal histories.

Police draw up the most-wanted lists with the help of informants, homicide investigators and patrol officers. The targets: residents who've been convicted of violent crimes and are out on probation, residents who have "beaten" charges, and even residents who have been homicide suspects but were never charged.

"You don't have to build a murder case to get a murderer off the streets," said Jason M. Weinstein, the prosecutor in charge of the U.S. Attorney's violent crime section. His office works closely with city police to bring federal charges against targeted individuals.

Weinstein and other representatives from the various law enforcement agencies meet and e-mail frequently about suspects on these lists. And they automatically get an e-mail when one of the targets is arrested, making it much more difficult for them to fall between the cracks.

One person on the list is 20-year-old Donatello Fenner, whose criminal record includes a 2005 charge of assault and a 2006 charge of armed robbery. Both charges were dropped. Still, Bealefeld says Fenner is involved in the Young Gorilla Family gang, which was at the center of much of last year's violence in Barclay.

"We try to keep very good track of him. We think he's a catalyst for violence in the neighborhood," Bealefeld said of Fenner, who was found guilty in April of having a concealed weapon and is serving a nine-month prison term, according to court records.

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