As New Mayor Starts, Police Promise Results

Crime Scenes

February 04, 2010|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,

At the end of 2002, Baltimore's homicide tally stood at 253. It was considered a remarkable achievement: the third consecutive yearly drop that finally ended the stigma of the 1990s, a decade in which more than 300 people were killed each year.

But in 2003, killings jumped to 270. Four years later, they hit 282, edging close to that fateful 300 mark that has long served as the unofficial benchmark of whether Baltimore is out of control or merely dangerous.

In 2008, homicides dropped to 234, a 20-year low. The number roughly held through 2009, ending with 238.

The unstated meaning behind those figures did not go unnoticed at the Baltimore Police Department's Fayette Street headquarters. To prepare for a new mayor, commanders presented a slide show Tuesday that included a chart of killings from 2000 through 2007.

One is titled: "July 2007: On pace to exceed 300 homicides."

The next is: "2009: Homicides down 16% since 2007."

The "July 2007" is the month and year Frederick H. Bealefeld III took over as police commissioner. He was appointed by Sheila Dixon and is being kept on by Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake, and rather than hash over the department's trouble spots, the slide show resembled a resume - highlighting crime reductions, money saved, guns seized, community walks held, Facebook pages updated.

The 253 killings in 2002 is a telling statistic as well. That year marked the end of Edward T. Norris' reign as police commissioner. The five years between Norris and Bealefeld - led by New Yorker Kevin P. Clark and Baltimore native Leonard Hamm - marked a period of uncertainty within the Police Department and on the streets of Baltimore.

Arrests, overtime, spending and crime soared. Officers were locking up so many people that even their union complained that arresting everyone for everything widened the divide between community and police and was on tenuous legal grounds. The practice sparked a still-pending lawsuit alleging unlawful police practices, judges ordered arrestees released from overcrowded jails and prosecutors declined to charge thousands of people brought in wearing handcuffs. And still, more and more people were being killed.

Nearly two years of Bealefeld have basically brought Baltimore back, with improvements, to where things stood when Norris left in 2002.

Nonfatal shootings, at 651 in 2007, dropped to 449 in 2009. City police arrested 108,447 people in 2005; that figure dropped to 77,595 in 2009. Bealefeld says he wants fewer but smarter arrests, with his officers concentrating on guns.

The Baltimore Police Department's chief spokesman, Anthony Guglielmi, notes that Norris had almost unlimited spending power and overtime funds, enough money to put two officers in each patrol car, and had 3,000 sworn officers. Through attrition, the strength has fallen and budget cuts have forced the department to cut civilian and contractual positions, travel, recruitment and holiday pay, and to delay the next academy class.

In 2007, city police spent $31 million on overtime. That is projected to drop to $14.2 million in fiscal 2010.

"We're doing the same job with less," Guglielmi said.

While Bealefeld would never openly call some of his predecessors failures, he made an impassioned plea about fighting crime while taking a swipe at past police leaders who were imported from elsewhere.

"I wasn't a police officer in San Jose," he said. "I wasn't a police officer in the great NYPD. I've just been a cop right here in the BPD, and I've policed every neighborhood and corner of this city. I'm not asking these men or women to do anything I haven't done myself."

Bealefeld said he had more to do:

"We've just started. We really are at the tip of the iceberg at getting the full buy-in from the patrol forces. But if this city stays committed to this strategy over the long haul, you're going to see incredible results."

Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton contributed to this article.

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