Baltimore Not As Bloody In '08 With Fewer Killings

By: AP
By: AP

On the streets of one of the nation's most violent cities, Detective Danny Danzy is known as a "bodysnatcher."

He's on the front lines of Baltimore's battle to reduce homicides, but he's not looking for dead bodies. Instead, he knocks on doors, taps on windows and shines his flashlight into desolate row homes, searching for violent suspects who should be in jail - people who, according to research, are more likely to become killers or homicide victims.

When it's obvious a suspect is holed up inside, he uses a battering ram. Danzy is part of the city's Warrant Apprehension Task Force, a group getting part of the credit for decreasing homicides in Baltimore to their lowest total in 20 years.

Police in the city once nicknamed "Bodymore, Murdaland," are going after the most entrenched criminals and are starting to see success. As of midnight Thursday, there were 234 homicides in 2008, down from 282 killings a year ago.

"It's an encouraging start," Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III said. "We're posting some real results."

But for a city that inspired the television crime dramas "Homicide: Life on the Street" and "The Wire," officials don't dwell on the decrease. "We have a long way to go," Mayor Sheila Dixon said.

Despite the reduction, the city, with about 624,000 residents, has a rate of 37.5 slayings per 100,000 residents. Based on 2007 FBI data, that would make Baltimore the third-bloodiest city in the nation with a population of at least 250,000 people, behind Detroit and St. Louis.

Baltimore's 2008 numbers would have been lower if not for a grim finish: 52 people were slain in November and December. The city hasn't had fewer than 200 slayings since the 1970s.

During the 1980s, the city averaged 226 slayings per year. Homicides topped 300 every year the next decade, when the scourges of crack and heroin led to turf wars.

City leaders should be proud of their accomplishments, said Daniel Webster, co-director of the Center for Gun Policy and Research at Johns Hopkins University. He believes the decrease could become a trend if police continue targeting people who carry illegal guns.

However, criminologist James Alan Fox of Northeastern University in Boston said a one-year drop in homicides doesn't prove much.

"There is a certain degree of randomness with homicide counts," Fox said. "When cities have large one-year drops, they tend to go up the following year. When cities have large one-year jumps, they tend to go down."

Homicides nationwide are down since the mid-1990s, but in the past eight years there have been few clear national or regional trends, Webster said.

The homicide total in Washington, D.C., was up slightly in 2008 to 185 killings, while Philadelphia experienced a 15 percent drop to just more than 330 homicides. Detroit saw a drop of about 13 percent with 344 killings, and Newark, N.J., had 104 homicides, a 32 percent decrease.

Critics have blamed Baltimore's homicide totals in part on turnover in the police commissioner's office. Slayings began declining almost immediately after Bealefeld, a Baltimore native with 27 years of experience in the department, took over in July. His message was simple: Target "bad guys with guns."

He also changed how police pursue warrants. Criminal history now dictates aggressive apprehension.

On a recent morning, several teams of officers fanned out in unmarked cars, each with a list of "priority warrants" - hundreds of names of suspects previously arrested or convicted in violent crimes.

Even though Danzy knocked on a dozen doors in three hours without making an arrest, he believed the strategy worked.

"It's an awesome idea. We've started focusing on the 1 or 2 percent that cause all the problems," Danzy said.

Stronger partnerships with state and federal agencies have also been critical.

U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein has made gun crime a priority since he took office in July 2005. His office helps target potential candidates for federal gun charges, which carry lengthier sentences.

"A large number of violent, repeat offenders in Baltimore city have been removed from the community for long periods of time - 10, 20, 30, 40 years," Rosenstein said. "We're getting the worst of the worst so they're not in a position to commit any more murders."

The state parole agency has a new Violence Prevention Initiative. Offenders on parole or probation who fit certain criteria - younger than 29, with multiple arrests including gun charges - receive increased supervision and a zero-tolerance policy for violations.

There were more 1,200 such people in Baltimore at the end of November, said Philip Pie, executive director of the Division of Parole and Probation. When those offenders violate parole, their arrest warrants become a priority for Danzy and his colleagues, who hope their diligent work will help Baltimore shed its bloody image.

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