Baltimore will end the year with across-the-board declines in crime, continuing a three-year trend of plummeting gun violence in the city.
The declines come amid a strategy shift that has police making tens of thousands fewer arrests — and in spite of a bad economy that many believed would fuel higher crime rates. With Baltimore crime still high compared with other U.S. cities, officials see 2010 as another step forward.
Homicides have fallen about 7 percent to 222, giving the city its lowest number since the late 1980s, just before the crack cocaine epidemic sent crime soaring nationwide.
Nonfatal shootings have fallen nearly 40 percent since 2007, while reported robberies, which police said would be a focus this year, dropped 8 percent compared with a year ago. Crimes involving juvenile victims continued to decline, too.
"We've just been building and building," said Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III, who assumed control of the Police Department in 2007 amid resurgent crime. Since then, authorities have focused on targeting the worst of the worst — Bealefeld calls it fishing with a spear instead of a net. Officials say improved cooperation among state and federal officials has also been key.
"We've taken a very critical look at what works and what doesn't," said Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who took over as mayor early this year and has not changed the strategy developed by Bealefeld and her predecessor, Sheila Dixon.
Baltimore's drop in crime mirrors a nationwide trend. Other cities, including Philadelphia and Los Angeles, have seen larger drops in recent years and some are at four-decade lows. That has kept Baltimore, despite its strides, near the top of lists that rank the violent cities.
U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein said many of those cities had begun their declines years earlier.
"Baltimore was lagging," Rosenstein said. "Crime was dropping across the country, but it stayed high in Baltimore. What you have seen the last few years is tremendous progress. And keep in mind, it takes a lot of effort just to keep it where it is. The second challenge is to drive it down even further.
"If we stick with this strategy, you'll see continued improvement."
Officials agree that 200-plus homicides are still far too many, and the declining numbers bring little solace to those who have lost loved ones to violence.
David Douglas, who grew up in West Baltimore and has worked as a lawyer and vice president of an adult services company, buried his nephew, Davon Douglas, in late November. Davon was fatally stabbed in Southwest Baltimore.
"If you stay there for any length of time, Baltimore will take somebody from you," said Douglas, 59.
Davon had a record of drug violations, and his father died years earlier of AIDS, a result of drug addiction. On a walk through the neighborhood, young people pass by liquor stores and drug slingers who are trying to recruit, Douglas said.
Douglas said his 28-year-old nephew was friendly and respectful, and a talented artist and athlete. His funeral service attracted a large crowd.
"My nephew mattered, if not to others, then to us, his family," Douglas said.
Kim Kennebrew left Cherry Hill to join the military, and now lives outside Atlanta. But her 24-year-old daughter, Randol Buncombe, gravitated back to the city and, on Oct. 5, was fatally shot. Another man was shot and wounded, and Kennebrew believes the bullet was not intended for her daughter.
"I'm hurting every day," Kennebrew said. "It's sad. It just keeps going on."
Neither killing has been solved, and detectives have closed only about half of this year's cases. That's below the national average but on par with other large cities, said Maj. Terrence McLarney, commander of the homicide unit.
The coming year figures to be a pivotal one. Bealefeld made the rare move of openly advocating for a new state's attorney in this year's Democratic primary, placing a lawn sign at his Southwest Baltimore home in support of defense attorney Gregg Bernstein.
Bernstein, who entered the race late and with little name recognition, went on to defeat 15-year incumbent Patricia C. Jessamy using a tougher-on-crime platform. His election gives the city what many see as a three-headed crimefighter — Bernstein is married to Sheryl Goldstein, who is Rawlings-Blake's top adviser on crime and a key collaborator with Bealefeld. Jessamy warned that Bernstein would be a "rubber stamp" for police.
The Police Department also will see a significant shake-up in the top ranks, with the expected retirement of Deputy Commissioner Deborah Owens. Patrol chief John Skinner is expected to be promoted.