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Baltimore May See Lowest Homicide Count Since ’80s

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BALTIMORE (AP) — The city known nationwide as a homicide hot spot thanks to TV crime dramas could record its lowest annual homicide total since the early 1980s. Through midday Friday, Baltimore has recorded 194 homicides this year, putting it on track to see fewer than 200 homicides for the year and the lowest homicide rate in more than 20 years.

City leaders credit a sustained focus on repeat violent offenders and increased community engagement for the continued drop that reflects a nationwide decline. But in a city that has shrunk for decades, officials hope people will take note of their successes.

“While I’m pleased with the men and women in blue without community partners, none of this would be possible,” Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said. “I think that is one of the keys to bridging the gap between what we know are the realities and the perception of violent crime in the city.”

Both have to be addressed for the city to grow successfully, she said.

For a city dubbed at various times the nation’s “murder capital” and known to the world as the setting for crime dramas such as “The Wire,” these declines aren’t a cue to pop champagne.

Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III said he’s pleased with the reduction, but not satisfied.

“What the mayor and I have to battle is people’s perceptions and fears and breaking through this wall of cynicism,” he said. “We’ve been doing something here for a while now and it’s hopeful that people are taking note.”

The homicide decline began in 2007, the year that Bealefeld took over and the next year saw a 17 percent drop to 234 slayings, a 20-year low. Homicides held steady in 2009 and dropped again last year. A focus on crime involving youth has cut juvenile homicides by nearly 50 percent since 2007 and juvenile arrests have fallen 30 percent compared to last year.

The successes have attracted more federal grants and visits from other jurisdictions interested in learning about the city’s approach, Bealefeld said. The strategy takes advantage of patterns identified in repeat offenders’ records, such as weapons charges, since half of the people charged with murder have prior gun offenses, Bealefeld said.

“We’ve arrested them before with guns,” he said. “It just makes sense.”

The focus has meant a significant drop in the number of arrests, a major shift from a period of “zero tolerance” or “quality of life” policing in the middle of this decade. That led to thousands of people being arrested for minor offenses and being released without charges. Releases without charges have fallen 70 percent since 2007.

That concentration on repeat offenders carries into the police department’s cooperation with city prosecutors, according to State’s Attorney Gregg Bernstein.

“We handle roughly 60,000 cases a year. You can’t provide that kind of targeted, strategic attention to every case,” Bernstein said. But it’s possible to have an impact with cases that have biggest impact on communities — violent crimes. “You can make a real dent in crime and have a real impact on public safety if you get those guys off the street.”

The current homicide count is far below the 353 slayings of 1993. Despite the declines, the homicide rate in the city remains high, about 32 per 100,000 residents if the city reaches 200 homicides this year. That’s a significant drop to the peaks that neared 50 in the 1990s, but similar to rates the city saw in the late 1980s, when the city had another 130,000 residents.

However, in the first half of the year, Baltimore’s 16 homicides per 100,000 residents was lower than St. Louis’ 21, Detroit’s 24 or New Orleans’ 31, according to crime statistics reported to the FBI.

Police departments used to look at crime as something like an act of nature, but there was an attitude shift 15 to 20 years ago and things really started to change with an emphasis on community policing, according to University of Maryland criminologist Gary LaFree.

“Police have gotten a lot smarter in deploying their resources,” LaFree said. “It’s definitely very different than the
old days when they used to do random patrols. They’re definitely a lot smarter than they used to be and I think that does have an effect.”

But policing can’t take all the credit for fluctuations, some of the nation’s decline is due to an aging population and immigration and the absence of a drug having a devastating effect like crack-cocaine did in cities like Baltimore in the 1980s and 1990s.

The reduction of homicides anywhere near 200 in a year is a huge accomplishment for Baltimore, according to David Kennedy, director for the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. It has become clear that focusing carefully on a relatively small number of people and groups, such as gangs and drug crews that drive the violence works, he said.

“Even in a city with a violent crime problem as serious as Baltimore’s is, virtually nobody across the city — statistically
speaking — will kill another human being,” Kennedy said. “People who are likely to do that are standout offenders and they are often standout groups of offenders. It’s possible to identify them and pay attention to them in a way that prevents that.”

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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