The annual discussion of Baltimore's homicide count is well under way, with questions about how our numbers stack up next to the declines seen in many other big cities last year, comparisons of fatal versus nonfatal shootings, and the ever-apt assessment that no matter what the total is, it's too high. But it is worth reflecting on one fact that tends to be overlooked: Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III has presided over the longest sustained drop in homicides of any of Baltimore's top cops in the last decade. He may not have the New York swagger of Ed Norris or Kevin Clark, and he doesn't have the same personal connection to Baltimore's streets as Leonard Hamm, but as soon as Mr. Bealefeld took over, homicide totals dropped, and they've stayed that way.
Over the last decade, there have been 14 quarters in which the city saw more than 70 homicides. Only two of them have come under Commissioner Bealefeld's watch. There were 11 quarters in which the city recorded fewer than 60 homicides. Six of them have occurred since Mr. Bealefeld took over.
It would be a mistake, of course, to be overly congratulatory about a tenure in which more than 230 people are still being killed in Baltimore every year. By the most recent FBI statistics, Baltimore still ranks as the third most violent big city in America; it's eye-opening to see that New York City, with a population more than 10 times greater than Baltimore's, finished the year with less than double our homicide total.
Still, it's important to remember where we've come from. Baltimore had 300 murders a year or more during the 1990s, and the FBI puts our drop in violent crime over the last decade at 44.6 percent, good for third best in the nation. As for Mr. Bealefeld, he took over the department in 2007, which began as the bloodiest year we'd had in a decade. The city saw an average of more than 26 homicides a month in 2007 - until Mr. Bealefeld took command, when the figure almost immediately dropped to below 20.
Of course, Mr. Bealefeld isn't solely responsible for the recent homicide figures by any means. In fact, that may be the point. He has presided over an era of greater cooperation among city, state and federal authorities than Baltimore has seen in years, and the relationship between the police and the city state's attorney's office, though not ideal, is not so poisonous as it once was. In particular, U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein has worked much more closely with state and local authorities to address crime in Baltimore than his predecessors did.
The Police Department hasn't been perfect under Mr. Bealefeld's tenure. He's had significant problems with the department's internal affairs division and with the crime lab, among other things. His initial reaction to last summer's spate of violence in the Inner Harbor did little to restore confidence.
But it is worth recognizing that since he took over, as many as 90 fewer people have been killed in Baltimore than previous trends would have suggested. Mr. Bealefeld gets the blame when things go wrong, so it's only fair to give him credit for what's going right.
I'll give him credit when the dirty cops are gone (like the ones on the State's Attorney's Office's "do not testify" list).