The daunting challenge for the city's police commissioner can be seen in the seemingly contradictory dispatches that sometimes show up on the agency's very own Twitter page.
On Monday at 10:15 a.m., police used the online message board to announce that an adult male had been shot in the leg on Norfolk Avenue. Forty minutes later, they tweeted a "CRIME FIGHT UPDATE" proclaiming, as if quoting from a stock ticker, that first-quarter numbers "show Baltimore homicides & shootings @ 33-year low."
Then Tuesday, at 11:06 a.m.: "Shooting 6610 Belair Road. Adult female shot at location conscious and talking." An update at 12:14 p.m.: "Investigation reveals adult female shot during armed robbery."
The victim is the 32-year-old owner of Blessed Productions salon, who police said was accosted while opening her store. She suffered a graze wound to her head after giving up a small amount of money.
It was just the type of attack likely to attract public outrage: Innocent victim shot in daylight outside a store on a busy thoroughfare just a few blocks from suburban Overlea.
It's also just the type of crime that frustrates police as they confront a public skeptical of the department's successes. Just scan the police Twitter page and you feel like you're in a boxing match: The city is unsafe, the city is safe, then unsafe, then safer than it has been since your parents left their doors unlocked, then unsafe again.
One shooting does not make the city more dangerous, just as positive first-quarter stats don't make the city safe. And lest we forget, we've had more murderous years.
Back in January 1989, a gunman walked into a pharmacy in the same dingy Belair Road plaza where Blessed Productions now occupies a corner spot and demanded money. The drug store owner took out his 9mm pistol from his shoulder holster hidden under a jacket and fired twice.
One bullet hit the hooded gunman in the buttocks as he tried to run. The other bullet went through a wall and hit the owner of Frank's Pizza and Subs in the head. Frank Mastrantuono died on his 32nd birthday. The pizza shop is still in business; workers there this week declined to say whether the same family still owns the place.
The shooting more than two decades ago made the front pages of both The Sun and The Evening Sun. It was one of those incidents that focuses the city's attention, fairly or unfairly, on one address and one pull of the trigger.
Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III knows that one crime can do that. A 5-year-old is shot in the head in Southwest Baltimore; a security guard is killed during a robbery at a corner store in Waverly; a celebrity sportscaster is hit upside the head while jogging in Druid Hill Park.
That recent attack on WJZ's Mark Viviano — he wasn't injured and nobody took anything — prompted a vicious Internet debate on whether Baltimore is now out of control. Bealefeld, speaking on Dan Rodricks' radio show on April 29, noted that the same day Viviano was attacked, "I had a man shot at Pennsylvania and Fulton Avenue. On the scale of things, that is a pretty big deal."
Sometimes the wrong crimes, the wrong stories, get the attention.
But the commissioner told Rodricks on WYPR that when he talks to people at a community meeting or on his neighborhood walks, it's the Viviano-like stories he hears the most. Nobody's complaining that a man got shot on Fulton Avenue, but rather "my car got broken into last week, my house has been burglarized three times."
Baltimore has reached new lows in homicides and shootings. Yet Bealefeld knows we're always just one more shooting, one more Inner Harbor attack away from what he called another "indictment on the whole city."
When murders dropped from 282 in 2007 to 234 in 2008, Bealefeld said, critics shouted, "Well, you're lucky." The next year, 238 people were killed. In the first four months of this year, 56 people have been killed, compared to 91 at this time last year. Shootings have dropped from 225 during the first third of 2009 to 102 this year.
"People are still calling it luck," Bealefeld told Rodricks. "When Derek Jeter hits a triple, people don't call it luck, they call it skill."
But he needs help. The commissioner noted sadly that participation has caved for his beloved neighborhood cop walks in Carrollton Ridge, where 5-year-old Raven Wyatt was shot last year. Hundreds joined in a march days after the shooting .
Now, he said, "it's business as usual with some of the apathy."