Baltimore will end 2008 tonight with its fewest homicides in two decades, fighting through a late-year spike to mark one of its biggest year-to-year drops.
The decline - a drop of almost 50 killings, from 282 to 234 as of midnight - continues a trend that began in late 2007 when Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III took command of the Police Department. It restores the city's homicide total to levels not seen since the late 1980s, before an infusion of crack cocaine routinely drove the annual body count above 300.
But the improvement has been tempered by several confounding factors. While homicides and nonfatal shootings are down, violent crime overall is largely unchanged and Baltimore remains one of the most violent large cities in the country. The killing of a former city councilman also served as a sobering reminder that while the majority of the victims are involved in the drug trade, the city's crime problem touches all corners.
Officials say that too much emphasis is placed on the city's homicide tally, yet they hope that this year's reductions can help convince an apathetic populace that change is possible.
"So much has been built around the homicide number that I think [a significant drop] can help galvanize people in the city around the possibilities of what can be accomplished here," Bealefeld said.
City leaders hope that a sustained decline might help shake Baltimore's violent reputation, a key to reversing decades of population decline and disinvestment in the inner city.
Relations among state and federal agencies - marked in the past by bickering and finger-pointing - are the strongest in recent memory, officials say. And the centerpiece of the city's crime prevention strategy - targeting the most violent offenders and those with prior handgun violations - appears to be paying off. A new unit, called the Violent Crimes Impact Division, sent hundreds of officers to West and East Baltimore, where some of the more notable homicide reductions have been achieved.
The city's Western District, for example, where nearly 90 people were killed in 1992, recorded 23 homicides in 2008. It has not recorded fewer than 32 homicides in a year since at least 1970.
But the Western District is also emblematic of the past year's uneven results: While it recorded the largest drop in homicides of any district, shootings rose and robberies increased by 37 percent.
Trina Johnson, 40, was arriving home Dec. 23 from her job as an intensive-care nurse at the University of Maryland Medical Center when she encountered flashing police lights and caution tape. The disparity of her neighborhood is striking: On one side of the street are new brick-front homes of Heritage Crossing, their grassy yards clean and windows decorated with Christmas lights.
But a flashing blue police light in front of those homes bounced off of two rundown convenience stores, where a man had just been shot in the head. That side of the street is marked by trash-strewn curbs and rowhouses, nearly all boarded up. Officers spoke to a woman seated in her car, too shaken by the incident to drive.
In a three-block radius, three people were killed in the five previous months, including Ronald Jackson, 14, who was shot while taking a grapefruit to an elderly neighbor. The man shot in the head that night, a former Marine, would die on Christmas Day.
"You can't tell by the numbers," Johnson said. "It's getting rough around here - people without jobs or getting out of jail. There's always shootings. I can't believe this is happening right around the corner from my house again."
A few nights earlier, neighborhood activists had gathered at the Western District police station for a holiday party. Elder C.W. Harris, founder of a recovery program for women called Martha's Place, sat behind a computer and stereo system playing Mary J. Blige songs as neighbors ate turkey, ham, corn and macaroni and cheese. Women got up and danced in step to "The Cupid Shuffle."
The residents say their efforts are paying off and that police have been more responsive to their concerns.
"This used to be the worst of the nine districts. All the misfits used to come here," asserted Pearl Moulton. "But we changed it."
It could be argued that Baltimore is only catching up to a nationwide trend. Last year, New York tallied its lowest number of homicides since 1963, while Chicago's count was its lowest since 1965. And Detroit, long linked with Baltimore at the top of most lists ranking urban violence, this year is set to record its lowest total in 40 years.
Among large cities, Baltimore's rate of 36 homicides per 100,000 residents is still higher than Washington (31), Philadelphia (22), Chicago (18), Boston (10) and New York (six). Detroit's rate fell to 37, keeping the two cities together near the top.
Still, in the past 40 years, only one Baltimore police commissioner has overseen a more substantial homicide drop, when there was a reduction of 59 homicides in 1976 under Donald C. Pomerleau.