Crime Scenes: Police commissioner reassures Northeast residents on crime

But hours after Bealefeld leaves meeting, another killing in Northeast neighborhood

February 17, 2011|By Peter Hermann, The Baltimore Sun

"People are getting killed in the city every day."

Baltimore Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III told residents that he hears this all the time, from the beaches of the Eastern Shore to the hearing rooms in Annapolis, where, he complained, proposed gun legislation is "stymied" by lawmakers who think guns are only a city problem.

"It's a lie," he said, noting that the city went nine days this year without a fatal shooting, stabbing or bludgeoning. There have been 22 killings in the first 48 days of the year, roughly on par with the pace at this time in 2010, a year when 223 people were slain.

Hardly a killing a day.

But Bealefeld was talking Wednesday night to a group from Northeast Baltimore, a once-quiet corner of Baltimore where violence is spiking. Three hours after the commissioner left the meeting at Good Samaritan Hospital, a 22-year-old man was shot to death inside a house in the 1600 block of E. 31st St.

It was the Northeast District's seventh slaying of 2011, making it the deadliest police patrol area in the city, accounting for nearly one-third of this year's homicides. The latest shooting occurred in Coldstream-Homestead-Montebello. It and Belair-Edison, on the other side of Clifton Park, are two prime trouble spots.

"A lot more needs to be done in the areas," Bealefeld told the group, before the shooting on East 31st Street had occurred. "The level of violence is unacceptable by anyone's standard."

It gets worse.

The commissioner noted that the shootings are no longer limited to two communities at the southern edge of the district, which border the historically violent east side. "It's moving — it's moving east and west," Bealefeld told them.

Only a handful of residents pressed Bealefeld on the killings, and none asked specific questions about any one in particular. Several complained that the violence is taking patrol officers away from their neighborhood. "I guess you have to be dead to get some attention," one woman shouted, saying she sees officers up and down Belair and Harford roads but none on her side streets to battle prostitution and loitering.

"The cops in your neighborhood need to address the concerns of the people in your neighborhood," Bealefeld answered. But he stressed that he won't divert officers from going after gun offenders, who, he said, account for most of the violent crime.

It's not how many officers there are, he said, but what they do. City officers are arresting tens of thousands fewer people than just a few years ago (108,000 in 2005, compared with about 65,000 last year), a strategic shift away from mass corner sweeps to targeting gun and repeat violent offenders.

These meetings are a frustrating exercise for Bealefeld.

His opening presentation makes him pitchman for a product few people understand, and even fewer believe in.

He is selling crime reduction. A 25-year low in the number of homicides. Historic drops in nonfatal shootings and other violent crime. Fewer juveniles killed last year than in the previous four decades. The days of 300-plus killings a year are over.

"How many of you people know that?" Bealefeld asked the group.

He knows it's the death tally that counts, and even with the declines, the city's per-capita homicide rate is among the nation's highest. But people still think the city suffers a killing a day. "It's what Baltimore is known for," the commissioner said.

And so on Wednesday, Bealefeld stood in front of about two dozen residents and tried to sell his product — a safe city, or at least a city safer than it once was. He asked sports enthusiasts to raise their hands and noted that they probably know arcane statistics about the players and teams they follow but don't know how many people were killed in the city last year.

"We don't know that stat that drives the engine that creeps people out about living in Baltimore," Bealefeld said. It's a problem everybody should want to solve, he stressed, to attract businesses and homeowners to build up the city and drive down not just crime but property taxes that are double those of every other jurisdiction in Maryland.

"We continue to see great progress in the city," Bealefeld said. "We have great difficulties getting the word out."

Just a few hours later, about 11 p.m., four neighborhoods to the south, bullets fired into the upper body took the life of Martez Anthony Hall, who died at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Another statistic, another headline, another challenge..

Baltimore Sun reporter Yeganeh June Torbati contributed to this article.

peter.hermann@baltsun.com

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