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Homicides in Baltimore last year paralleled 2008's two-decade low, while the city saw a sharp drop in nonfatal shootings. All told, about 130 fewer people were shot compared with 2008, even though four more were killed.
Law enforcement officials say the decline in overall shootings is part of an encouraging trend that saw total gun crime drop by 16 percent, including aggravated assaults involving guns, street robberies and carjackings. More than 2,600 guns were taken off the streets by city police, with 1,100 people arrested on gun charges.
"In the last 2 1/2 years, we've certainly made all of our people understand that if they could do nothing else but catch a guy with a gun, they're making the city safer," Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III said. "There's been a notable reduction in nonfatal shootings, but we can do better."
The city's increase in 2009 from 234 to 238 victims put it virtually alone among other large cities as homicides continued to fall across the country. Amid shrinking public safety budgets and a severe economic recession that some experts predicted would spur a jump in crime, other large cities battling high homicide rates - including Washington, St. Louis, Philadelphia and Oakland, Calif. - saw measurable drops. New York was poised to record its lowest total in history, while New Orleans, the city with the top per-capita homicide rate, saw a modest reduction. Detroit police refused to provide a number.
Throughout Maryland, killings fell about 11 percent, fueled almost entirely by sharp declines in the D.C. metro region, according to preliminary Maryland State Police figures provided by the governor's office.
"I have to focus on Baltimore, and it's important to stress that we've seen two years of sustained and historic progress in the city," Mayor Sheila Dixon said.
An analysis of Baltimore's numbers shows that, similar to prior years, the city's victims were overwhelmingly black (88 percent), and both suspects and victims were likely to have criminal records. Eighty-four percent were shot to death, and 15 victims included in this year's total were shot or wounded in prior years, including one man who was shot in 1988.
If there was a major demographic trend, it was that the victims got older. For years, victims under age 25 have represented as much as half of the city's homicide victims. But in 2009, they made up just 37 percent, the lowest figure in at least 12 years, according to available figures compiled by the Police Department's homicide unit. More victims were 35 and older, including a doubling of victims between the ages of 50 and 85.
The year got off to an ominous start. Nine people were slain in the first five days of the year, seven of them under age 22. The victims included 16-year-old Trevayne Ricks and 15-year-old Mayresa Craft, who were together when they were shot in an apartment building near Good Samaritan Hospital. The next day, 17-year-old Andre Thorpe was fatally shot in East Baltimore's Madison-Eastend neighborhood.
By the end of the year, 15 juveniles had been killed, down from an average of 25 per year between 2004 and 2008. Overall, 40 percent fewer juveniles were wounded in shootings, and officials say an increased focus on juvenile offenders may be paying off.
James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University who has researched demographics of homicide victims, advises against drawing conclusions from large one-year swings of any crime statistic, however.
"I've looked at years with a big jump and a big decline, and the higher the jump or the decline, the more likely it was to go the other way the following year," Fox said. "You don't solve the crime problem, you only control it, and when you stop paying much attention to it, it can return."
For the decade, the city's results were mixed. In 2000, killings dropped below 300 for the first time since the 1980s, and the past two years have represented the lowest two-year total since 1987-1988, even adjusting for a population decline of about 100,000. But Baltimore never came close to former Mayor Martin O'Malley's goal of 175, and three consecutive years of declines to start the decade were an afterthought by 2008, when the total had crept back up to 282 during the second year of Dixon's tenure.
Total violent crime dropped 38 percent since 2000, one of the highest declines in the nation - a statistic questioned by opponents during O'Malley's run for governor. In a recent interview, he said only New York and Los Angeles have achieved a larger decline since 2000.
"Too often, we look at how much more we have to go rather than how far we've come," O'Malley said last week.
Despite the reductions, city officials continue to battle the perception that crime is out of control - whether it's the city's depiction on television shows such as "The Wire," or its high rates compared to other cities.