The annual number of killings in Baltimore has fallen below 200 for the first time in more than three decades, a symbolic threshold that seemed elusive for a crime-weary city just four years ago.
As a new year begins, city officials say the decline is a major step toward revival efforts. Soaring crime and decades of abandonment made the city synonymous with urban violence in America, fictionalized on television crime dramas and leading to nicknames like "Bodymore, Murderland."
Though Baltimore is still among the most deadly cities per capita, as murder has declined more steeply across the country, the drop extends an overall downward trend in gun violence here since 2007, the year Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III took office. The 196 killings in 2011 were the fewest since 1977, and represent just the third time since the 1960s that the city recorded fewer than 200.
In 2010, 223 people were killed.
"For me, it's clear that these reductions in violent crime will be helpful in growing the city," Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said. "Families deserve to live in safe neighborhoods, and we're determined – no matter what neighborhood you live in, no matter what zip code — to protect that right."
U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein, who took over in 2005 and revamped his office to focus more on violent crime, said that the homicide count falling under 200 is "a very big deal."
"It represents thousands of children who have not been exposed to violence on the streets of Baltimore," he said. "It gives hope to people who have been told for their entire lives that gun crime must be accepted as a way of life."
The Police Department's Eastern District may be most emblematic of the city's improvements in public safety but also how far it still has to go. During the crack-fueled drug wars of the 1990s, killings in the district sometimes topped 80 a year. Last year, there were 27 killings, and only one since Oct. 17 — nothing to brag about and yet a remarkable number for this beleaguered area.
At 6 p.m. on a balmy December night, Deputy Major Robert Quick guided his unmarked car down a street in the Darley Park neighborhood where a group of young people had gathered. One of them yelled, and they started scrambling — going deep for a football pass, past homes decorated with Christmas lights.
"Kids playing football," Quick chuckled, almost in amazement. The 16-year veteran has worked in this district nearly his entire career and remembers when violence was relentless.
"When I came out in 1995, every day at least one person in the Eastern got shot. It was quite common on the [night] shift to have two shot in the same shift, every single day."
But the same underlying social problems — poverty, joblessness, blight — continue to trouble the area, and a 12-year-old boy was gunned down in this neighborhood in May. Residents warn that the city is walking a tightrope.
"There's no way we should be feeling comfortable," said City Councilman Carl Stokes, who lives in the district's Barclay neighborhood. "The conditions that breed the sort of nonsense of 20 years ago have not significantly changed, and if we don't do right by our young people, we could see another explosion."
While criminologists can't agree on what's driving the declines, local officials say they deserve credit for taking out violent drug organizations from top to bottom and breathing heavily down the necks of other known offenders through a policy of "targeted enforcement." Various agencies — from parole and probation to schools to federal prosecutors — are working together more closely than ever before, officials agree.
"A very small segment of our population pool disproportionately contributes to violent crime in this city. Many of these guys are known to us," Bealefeld said. "We've refined the system so officers on the street are pipelining that information to us."
Though murders tend to be related to drugs and other disputes, they're also generally viewed as a reliable barometer of crime because they are less subjective than other categories. Statistics for years showed that crime was plummeting here, at one of the most significant rates in the country, while homicides stayed flat.
As cities across the country saw unprecedented drops in recent years, Baltimore, Detroit, New Orleans and St. Louis remained in a tier of their own, seemingly unable to stem the violence. Washington, D.C., for example, which saw 479 homicides in 1991, recorded just 108 as of Thursday. This year, Baltimore and St. Louis saw large declines; Detroit and New Orleans saw big increases.
Baltimore's murder rate last year was about 31 killings per 100,000 people, still much higher than cities like Philadelphia (19.6 in 2010), Boston (11) and New York (6), but down considerably from a peak of 48 in 1993, during a decade in which 300 people were killed here every year.
It's not just murders that have declined — non-fatal shootings are down markedly, with 381 people being shot and surviving, compared with 725 in 2000, according to police.
"During the 1990s, when you went to bed at night, you had a crowd on the corner," said Mitchell Henderson, 75, a community activist in the Madison-East End neighborhood. "When you got up in the morning, you had a crowd on the corner. Some streets you couldn't even get through."
Gov. Martin O'Malley, who took the mayor's office in 1999 on a crime-fighting platform and brashly promised to reduce the number of killings to 175 within a few years, said last week of the reduction: "I don't think there's anything about which I will ever be more grateful in public service, and I'm not going to quibble with God over the timing."
"When we [set a goal of 175], there were some people who laughed," the governor said last week. "There were many so-called smart people that said you'll never be able to do it. It's Baltimore, that's the way it always is."
The total fell below 300 in 2001 to 261, which then-Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris said at the time was "just a beginning of things to come. [Now] we look at the next big milestone: 200."
But Norris departed, and in the ensuing years, the Police Department's zero-tolerance policies on quality-of-life violations did little to slow a resurgent murder rate.
"We were very much caught up in the fight without having a real structure or plan to lead to results," Bealefeld said recently. "I reflect on that time, and it seemed like we were in a whirlwind of going all over the city and battling and battling and battling, going from east to west. There was no real structure around the fight."
The homicide rate began to creep up, and in 2007 was on pace to smash through 300 again. That's when Bealefeld took over, and decided to focus on the worst of the worst — he called them "bad guys with guns." He revamped a plainclothes unit now called the Violent Crimes Impact Section, flooding the city's most historically violent areas. The new priorities led to a sharp drop in arrests, with less than half as many people arrested last year than the 100,000 locked up in 2005.
Statistics show that homicides have continued to overwhelmingly affect the African-American community; 95 percent of last year's victims were black. Among them were Rene Logan, a 91-year-old woman stabbed during a burglary; 12-year-old Sean Johnson, shot as he sat on a porch watching basketball on TV; Hezikah Wilson, a 38-year-old autistic man shot and killed while walking his dog; and Billy Lovitt, 58, Tanyika Gibbs, 37, and Michael Jones, 27, who were all shot and set on fire in Northeast Baltimore.
Only one of those cases has been closed, and police solved just 46 percent of this year's murders, one of the lowest clearance rates on record.
Bealefeld emphasized partnerships with the community, personally joining countless neighborhood walks throughout the city. He said one of his goals is to more formally bring together those neighborhood groups in 2012.
In East Baltimore, Elroy Christopher has been fighting for his neighborhood for more than 15 years. Known as "Big Chris," he helped found the Rose Street Community Center and once stood guard and slept in a box at North Rose Street and Ashland Avenue in order to reclaim the block from drug dealers.
These days, his work continues through summer camps, renovating vacant houses, and helping run a technology center on North Milton Avenue. But resources remain scarce. He says he pays for much of the work out of his own pocket from money received through disability checks, and the technology center is likely to close.
"Those are the things that help change a community," Christopher says, "and we don't get a penny for most of this stuff."
"Public safety will continue to be an issue if something is not done to help the people in the neighborhood have a proper way of life," adds his neighbor, Mitch Henderson, a retired city employee. "Help us and we can make things better."
Officials acknowledge that some of the crime reductions on the east side were caused by the clearing out of an entire neighborhood for the East Baltimore Development Inc. project near Johns Hopkins Hospital, eliminating the notorious Deaky Land area. Displacement has occurred as well, with Northeast Baltimore seeing an increase in violence.
But Quick, the deputy major, says focused police work is bearing fruit. He passes by the house where the Bloods gang stashed guns and drugs, until federal agents intervened in a murder plot and arrested key members. Here's the corner where Steven Blackwell's drug organization, tied to violence around the city, slung heroin. Here's the corridor where drug activity led to the indictment of "The Wire's" Felicia "Snoop" Pearson, perhaps a poetic payback of sorts for officials who said the HBO show "smeared" Baltimore's reputation.
Many believe that police can't stem the drug trade, that the war on drugs is futile. Take out the head and someone else takes his place. Quick won't dispute this. But he says police have zeroed in on dealers whose arrests will make an impact, and the proof is in the results.
Gardnel Carter, an ex-con who works with the violence intervention program called Safe Streets in nearby McElderry Park, says he hears from people on the street that drug sales have been hit by the economy and that some are taking note of recent high-impact prosecutions.
"The streets say the drugs ain't the same no more," Carter said. "Everybody can't get their hands on drugs readily, and then the stuff is being marked sky high – they can't afford it."
During a two-hour tour of the district, Quick's cell phone buzzes with officers telling him about the arrests of two of the district's known troublemakers. One of them, undeterred by a shooting that left him in a wheelchair, is suspected to be dealing drugs in the Broadway East neighborhood.
The man was on the district's "violent repeat offender" list and had recently been cited for a traffic charge. Police alerted his probation agent, triggering a violation and his arrest.
Asked about a reputed head of a drug organization slated to be released from federal prison this month, Quick knows all about him, and drives to the address where authorities expect the man to take up residence.
Fewer shootings and killings equals more time to do proactive police work, officials say. It allows them to focus on the quality of life crimes that, in most neighborhoods, are the chief complaint of residents. Quick said he's putting together a plan to address vehicles larcenies, which he admits wouldn't have been the topic of much discussion in prior years.
Quick knows there are critics who question the city's progress.
"I guess the proof will be in the pudding," he said. "If we shoot back up, well, then people can say it's a fluke, but clearly the trend line is going in the right direction."
Sun reporters Michael Dresser and Steve Kilar contributed to this article.
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