The women sitting on the front porches of two adjoining Northeast Baltimore homes say the well-kept appearance of their community belies a stubborn crime problem. One of them recalls that her son-in-law - an off-duty security guard returning home from work - was beaten and robbed of his possessions as he waited for a bus just a few weeks ago. The other notes that drug dealers come from nearby neighborhoods to hang out on their lush corner.
"A lot of people think that not a lot happens in this area, but it does," said one of the women, who was afraid to give her name. "You ain't safe nowhere."
The shooting death of former City Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr. during a robbery at the New Haven Lounge has drawn attention to a 13 percent spike in robberies in the Northeastern District, which led the city in such crimes over the past month.
Yesterday, detectives continued a vigorous investigation into Harris' killing, which occurred early Saturday morning when he stopped at the jazz club. Police are focusing on a Halloween mask that was found a few blocks from the scene and are examining possible links to other crimes in the area.
The robbery and killing followed an almost identical robbery at the club in July, according to a crime report obtained by The Baltimore Sun. Four men of slight build wearing bandannas accosted owner Keith Covington about 1:30 a.m. as he closed the business.
One man pointed a gun at Covington's head and demanded the contents of the club's safe. The men stole $2,900 then fled. Saturday's crime involved similarly masked men demanding the contents of the safe at almost exactly the same time of night.
Nicole Monroe, a police spokeswoman, said police are looking into the possibility that the crimes were connected.
The answers might not come soon enough for Covington, who said that most of his staff quit yesterday and that he was struggling to keep the club afloat.
"I have nothing anymore. I'm done," said a clearly frustrated Covington. "We fought a great fight."
The Northeastern District's challenges this year in many ways reflect crime trends that police are seeing citywide: a substantial drop in homicides and shootings, but an uptick in robberies and virtually no change in overall crime.
Despite Harris' killing, the district has seen homicides and shootings plummet 36 percent and 30 percent, respectively, better than the citywide averages as of Sept. 20. But the bump in robberies is 13 percent there, compared with 4 percent citywide.
"When you have a spike like that, then you've got some guys loose," said Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who represents neighborhoods in Northeast Baltimore. "The only way to take care of it is to catch them and arrest them and make it stick."
Police Maj. Delmar Dickson said the biggest increases have been in the Belvedere and Loch Raven neighborhoods, with many occurring in the early morning and when schools let out. Sterling Clifford, a spokesman for the Police Department and Mayor Sheila Dixon, said the increases appear large in contrast to "unusually low" figures recorded last year.
Dickson said officers were able to close nearly two dozen cases when a group of men believed to be carjacking vehicles and using them to commit robberies were apprehended in the Western District last week. He said officers are being asked to delve deeper into cases to find repeat offenders.
"The guy who goes out with the handgun and commits a robbery isn't doing it for the first time," Dickson said.
Since November 2007, the Northeastern District has been experimenting with a new schedule in which officers work four 10-hour shifts every week, resulting in extra police coverage from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m.
The program has been popular with officers, who usually work six days straight in eight-hour shifts, and the police union has been lobbying to expand it.
A committee of city police commanders and union representatives issued a report in May crediting the program with reducing crime in the area, though police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III has expressed reservations about it.
Arnold M. Jolivet, a well-known minority business advocate, stopped at a Jamaican carryout restaurant at a shopping center on Cold Spring Lane yesterday. He said he has frequented the area since he was a student at Morgan State University in the 1970s and that it remains one of the best parts of the city.
"There's no way to explain it, and you can't anticipate it," Jolivet said of Harris' death. "It's a tragedy of the utmost proportion, but the police have done a tremendous job in the past year."
But standing outside a laundromat, 67-year-old James Blue said he doesn't feel as safe as he once did in the neighborhood. "I usually walk most places," he said, "but I won't be doing that no damn more."
Baltimore Sun reporter Annie Linskey contributed to this article.