Tally of city killings depends on who's counting


November 02, 2008|By PETER HERMANN | PETER HERMANN,peter.hermann@baltsun.com

Counting the dead should be a straightforward task.

The latest figures compiled by Baltimore police put the number of slayings so far this year at 182, down from 251 at this time last year. It is a count kept on a board in the department's homicide office, and it is used daily by the media, politicians and police to gauge the level of violence in the city.

Here's what is not on that list: the death of Turner Jordan Nelson, the 3-year-old who was thrown off the Baltimore end of the Key Bridge back in February. His killing was investigated not by the city but by the Maryland Transportation Authority Police.

Here's what is on that list: The death of Dominic Faw, gunned down on Eutaw Street near Camden Yards - back on Oct. 1, 1995. Faw died March 22 of renal failure linked to the bullet wound to the chest, making the 29-year-old the city's 157th homicide victim of 2008.

I understand the police can't keep going back to previous years and rejuggling the numbers. Faw's death has to be recorded someplace, and his name goes on the list kept by police when the medical examiner rules the death a homicide. There have been nearly 10 so-called "time-delayed" deaths since January.

But leaving Turner off and Faw on is misleading if you want to know how many people were actually killed in the city this year. Faw was a victim of violence that occurred 13 years ago.

Dr. David R. Fowler, Maryland chief medical examiner, said the list of killings he keeps is typically longer than lists of killings kept by police agencies. His is a medical definition - a homicide is a "death at the hands of another" - while police and prosecutors use a legal definition, considering, for example, whether the homicide was committed in self-defense.

If a hunter in the woods shoots at a deer and hits and kills a person instead, Fowler said he rules the death a homicide. Police might rule it an accident because there was no intent to kill. Fowler's job is to determine if a death is a homicide; law enforcement must then decide if the homicide is a murder.

"Ours is a big number," Fowler said of his homicide count. "It is legitimate that police fold, bend and mutilate the number to some degree. They are looking for a criminal act. If there is no criminal act, they can legitimately ignore it."

Fowler dismisses the murder tally. "The raw number to me is a misnomer," he said, explaining quite rightly that it is the homicide rate that really matters.

"If you have a thousand people in your city and 300 get killed, that would be horrific," he said. "If you have a million in your city and 300 get killed, that would be far less severe."

Baltimore's murder rate last year was 44 per 100,000 people; the city is on pace this year to record a rate of about 32, which still puts us in the top tier of deadly American cities.

Baltimore recorded more than 300 killings each year for a decade in the 1990s, and each year we had a macabre race to see whether we'd once again hit that number - the determining factor of whether the city's affliction with violence was getting better or worse.

In 1999, then-Mayor Martin O'Malley complained of the "ghoulish fascination with waiting around for the 300th body to hit the pavement" and then promptly came up with his own number, vowing to cut the murders down to 175 - a foolish promise that has yet to be fulfilled.

Baltimore police spokesman Sterling Clifford calls the homicide count what it really is, a "murder count," in that it lists only unjustified homicides investigated by the city.

Here are some more deaths that aren't on this year's list: Twelve fatal shootings by city police officers and one of a robbery suspect by a gas station owner, all ruled justified or still being investigated. On the list: the fatal shooting of a man by a city police officer who has been charged with manslaughter.

Not on the list: the killings of two prisoners in the state-run prerelease center in the city, investigated by the Maryland Division of Correction. On the list: a missing man whose body has not been found. Detectives, Clifford said, "believe there is compelling evidence that a person who disappeared is dead."

The police spokesman told me he finds it interesting that I'm questioning the murder numbers at a time when the murder numbers are down, but the media are quick to use the numbers to call the city unsafe when the count goes up. I argue that the media, politicians and police are all guilty of making these numbers into something they're not.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.