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Feature

Bloodletting

Can Anything Be Done to Bring Baltimore's Homicide Rate Down?

Photos by Jefferson Jackson Steele
DEATH IN THE FAMILY: Maria Whiting displays photos of her two murdered sons.
BEARING WITNESS: City State's Attorney Patricia Jessamy says law enforcement needs help from the community.
EVERY MOTHER'S SON: Ginger Beale (left), sits with Maria Whiting, who she met in a grieving-mothers support group.
JUVENILE JUSTICE: Defense Attorney Margaret Mead says most of her clients are young and scared.
GETTING THINGS UNDER CONTROL: Police commissioner Frederick Bealefeld feels optimistic.
KIDS IN CRISIS: Philip Leaf of the center for the prevention of youth violence says the city's kids are battling tough odds.
GOOD MEDICINE: Dr. Carnell Cooper of the Violence Intervention Program works with victims of violent crime.

By Anna Ditkoff | Posted 1/23/2008

Maria Whiting's Northeast Baltimore home is immaculate. The dining room table is set with gold chargers beneath each plate and matching gold napkins at each setting. The white couches, covered in artfully arranged throw pillows, are so fluffy and pristine it seems impossible that anyone has ever sat on them. Whiting herself is equally put together and looks far younger than her 50 years. It's hard to believe that this friendly, soft-spoken woman has seen so much tragedy.

In 1995 her eldest son, Valgene Donte Alston, was heading home after playing basketball when a man with a gun mistook him for someone he had fought with earlier that day. According to Whiting, the man stood over her son, a good kid who had never been in trouble, and shot him twice in the head. "When he walked away one of the guys said, `Oh, I shot the wrong black nigger,'" Whiting says. Donte was 22.

Both of Whiting's younger sons, Ray Alston, then 16, and a then-13-year-old whose name Whiting does not want revealed for fear of his safety, were with Donte when he was killed. They each reacted differently to watching Donte die. "Ray went to street to get comfort," Whiting says, and racked up several convictions on drug charges. Her youngest "stayed home and refused to go back out the house," she says.

On Jan. 6, 2007, Alston, who had been living in Columbia, came into the city to have dinner in Little Italy. A few hours later he was found by police in a car on North Avenue near the off-ramp for Interstate 83. The car was riddled with bullets and Ray was dead. He was 27.

"I could not believe that it happened again to me. I could not believe it. I just fell to the floor," Whiting says. "Neither one of my boys lived to be 30."

This September, her youngest, now 26, was shot on the front steps of her house in a neighborhood of manicured lawns, by a group of would-be gang members trying to rob him. He survived.

Whiting's story is not unique. Michael Simms, a Marine, was murdered in June. He was 18, the same age his sister was when she was murdered in 1998. Mary Morris' youngest son, Darryl Duppins, was murdered June 11, 2006. Her eldest, John Morris, was killed Nov. 12 of last year. Both died within two blocks of Morris' Sandtown-Winchester home.

Ray Alston, Michael Simms, and John Morris were just three of 282 people murdered in Baltimore in 2007, making it the most murderous year the city has seen since 1999. By July, there were almost 30 more murders than at the same time in 2006.

How does a city get to the point where mothers lose multiple sons to street crime? Where you can ask a group of young children in certain neighborhoods if they have known anyone who has been shot and nearly every hand rises? It's not simply a sign of the times. Violent crime rates rose a bit nationally in 2005 and '06, but preliminary findings from '07 show national rates decreasing as Baltimore's homicide rate spiked.

According to FBI statistics, the average homicide rate for cities with populations between 500,000 and 1 million in 2006 was 13.9 per 100,000 residents. Baltimore's homicide rate for that year, with a population of about 640,000, was 43.1 per 100,000. In 2007 it was 44.

And it's not that once crime takes hold of a city nothing can be done. New York went from a peak of 2,245 homicides in 1990 to 770 in 1997 to less than 500 this past year, in a city with a population of over 8 million. Boston brought its rate down by 50 percent between 1995 and '97. Even Washington, which was known as the murder capital of the United States in the early 1990s, brought its homicide rate down in 2004, and it has stayed below 200 every year since. If Baltimore had Washington's current homicide rate, nearly 100 fewer people would have died in 2007. If it had New York's, only 39 people would have been murdered.

So, why is Baltimore's homicide rate still so high? And why have we had so much trouble bringing it down? To try to answer these questions City Paper talked to people on the front lines of crime in our city about how we got into this hole and, more importantly, though more elusively, how we can possibly get out.

Crack cocaine came to Baltimore in the '80s, and it hit hard. The city was hardly alone--crack blossomed in most major U.S. cities--but unlike other cities, crack didn't supplant heroin here; it simply joined it. With drugs came increases in crime as addicts stole to finance their habits and drug dealers fought over territory. By 1990, Baltimore had more than 300 homicides a year, a figure that peaked at 353 in 1993.

At the same time, Baltimore's population was in free fall, with nearly 1,100 people moving out of the city every month in 1996, leaving more than 11,000 homes vacant by 2000. Between 3 percent and 10 percent of those who stayed behind were drug addicts. In 1997, the Baltimore City Public School System was only graduating 42 percent of its students, leading to a takeover by the state. Employers who once offered job opportunities to people with and without diplomas were shuttering or moving elsewhere. The city was overrun by a sense that nothing could be done. Former Mayor Kurt Schmoke, who presided over the city for three terms spanning the '90s, admitted in a 2001 City Journal article that "after trying a number of things--police athletic centers, community policing, changing the leadership of the police department--and seeing that number stay year after year above 300 [murders], I ran out of ideas."

In 2000--the same year the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency announced that Baltimore was home to the highest per-capita number of heroin users in the country--Martin O'Malley became mayor, after beating out his rivals on a crime and justice platform, and brought former New York deputy police commissioner Ed Norris in to clean the city up. With Norris came ComStat, a program of tracking crime and holding police commanders accountable that was created in New York. Norris also increased the number of detectives focused on drug crimes from 23 to more than 150 and the number of officers tracking down open warrants from four to 75, according to a 2001 City Journal article, bringing in nine times as many people wanted for murder and attempted murder in seven months as were apprehended in all of 1999. And the homicide numbers came down from 305 in 1999 to 261 in 2000 to 253 in '02.

Norris left to head the Maryland State Police at the end of 2002. In 2004 he pleaded guilty to misusing city funds and served six months in federal prison. He has since returned to Baltimore and become the host of a radio talk show (on which this reporter regularly appears).

Not every New York strategy that O'Malley tried worked in Baltimore. Moving drug dealers inside proved impossible in a city of rowhouses rather than high-rises. And "zero tolerance," a strategy of arresting people for minor "quality of life" offenses, has been credited by many as exacerbating the distrust between Baltimoreans and the police.

New York wasn't the only city Baltimore emulated in its effort to bring down homicides. In 1998, Harvard University criminologist David Kennedy was brought in to try to duplicate the crime reduction he had helped spur in Boston. He proposed targeted enforcement that focused on the most violent offenders. Specifically, he looked to an approach that went from neighborhood to neighborhood, cleaning up the hardest-hit areas. It was effective in Boston, where the violence was localized in a few neighborhoods, but in Baltimore this approach was too slow. "You can't wait five or 10 years to bring your boutique program from one neighborhood to the next to the next," Norris says during a recent interview. "The vast majority of the city is in crisis; the pockets are where people live in relative safety."

Kennedy's approach also was based largely on cooperation between crime-fighting agencies on the city, state, and federal levels. But cooperation has long been an issue in Baltimore. As mayor, now-Gov. O'Malley had frequent dustups with the city's top prosecutor, State's Attorney Patricia Jessamy, and the relationships between her office, City Hall, and police headquarters have long been more contentious than collaborative.

After Norris, fellow New Yorker Kevin Clark took over the Baltimore Police Department, only to be fired less than two years later. He was replaced by Leonard Hamm, a Baltimorean whose rise to police commissioner was seen as proof that only a hometown boy could really understand and fix the city's problems. But neither Clark nor Hamm was able to duplicate the crime reductions of the beginning of the decade, and the homicide rate once again began to climb toward 300.

On Jan. 1, 2007, a man walked into a Chinese carry-out restaurant in West Baltimore and opened fire, shooting two 17-year-old boys and a 22-year-old woman who worked at the restaurant. One of the boys, Leon Nelson, died, becoming the first homicide victim of the year. It was the start of a period of carnage that took even hardened and resigned Baltimore by surprise.

Fifteen people were killed in the first 10 days of 2007, almost twice as many as had been killed by that time the year before, a year that had one of the highest homicide counts of the decade. Five people were murdered in one day alone, Jan. 9, one of them a city police officer.

On Jan. 18, with an average of one homicide a day, then-City Council President Sheila Dixon was sworn in as Baltimore's first female mayor, taking over O'Malley's term after he was elected governor. After seven months of bodies stacking up to the point where everyone was projecting that the city would not just pass the 300-murder mark but obliterate it, Hamm was fired and replaced by BPD's deputy commissioner of operations, Frederick Bealefeld. Dixon ran a successful campaign and was elected to her first full term as mayor this fall.

The phrase "we cannot police our way out of this" was bandied about so much it deserved its own bumper sticker, and the plan to bring down crime shifted to a more holistic approach. Law enforcement strategies were focused on the most violent offenders and getting guns off the street, while in an effort to address the root causes of crime--drug addiction, poverty, and lack of jobs and education--the city renewed its efforts to get drug treatment, job training, and other services to people in neighborhoods plagued by violence.

These weren't new ideas; many come right out of Kennedy's playbook. This time, however, something seemed to work, and the flow of blood subsided to a point where the year ended with 282 homicides. It was still the most homicides since 1999, but somehow it felt like a victory.

Stemming the tide of blood is one thing; beating it back is another. Dixon's move away from quality of life arrests was welcomed by many working in criminal justice, both in the government and in nonprofit and community organizations. The practice, which spurred the American Civil Liberties Union and NAACP to file a lawsuit against the city in June 2006, contributed to a breakdown in the relationship between the citizens and police, along with alleged arrest quotas, allegations of police bullying people out of reporting crimes, and several high-profile prosecutions of officers. The dilemma was not lost on the police. In response to a survey used to collect data for a crime plan created by O'Malley and Norris in 2000, nearly 80 percent of officers said the relationship between police and citizens was not very good. Nearly 50 percent of black officers believed that police stop people based on race, gender, and age rather than probable cause.

Marvin "Doc" Cheatham, president of the Baltimore City branch of the NAACP, says he feels the fact that most officers do not live in the city they serve--just 25 percent of Baltimore police officers live in the city, according to the department--has widened the gap between police and residents. "They have a lack of true understanding of the community and, sadly enough, to a degree, have a disrespect for the community," Cheatham says.

After Donte Alston's '95 murder, Maria Whiting's youngest son became a virtual shut-in. The 26-year-old only started leaving the house again in early 2007. On Sept. 3, Whiting sent her son to the store for a soda. He came back with her drink and then sat on the front steps of their house. Three males in red masks walked up and demanded his money. He said no, and they shot at him, hitting him in the back and putting two bullets in Whiting's door. An ambulance took her son away. Police stayed behind.

"The way the police treated me that day--like I was a criminal," Whiting marvels. "I felt humiliated." She says the officers searched her house, cracked jokes, and accused her of lying and withholding information. Worst of all, they kept her at her house for hours while they searched. "I was not allowed to go to the hospital to be with my only surviving son," Whiting says.

Police say that complaints against officers went down in 2007, with a 17 percent decrease in excessive-force complaints and a 9 percent decrease in discourtesy complaints from the year before. Arrests are also down, especially those that led to the arrested person being released from custody without being charged with a crime. One number that rose, however, was police-involved shootings. There were 32 this year, of which 13 were fatal, twice as many as the year before.

Focusing on violent repeat offenders and gun crimes has made policing in the city more dangerous, says Paul Blair, president of the city's Fraternal Order of Police. "We were given a mission by our new police commissioner, and from City Hall, to go out and get the bad guys off the street," he says. "The bad guys are called bad guys because they are."

State's Attorney Patricia Jessamy isn't feeling well. Her Southern accent is further softened by her stuffy nose as she sits in her office for nearly an hour explaining her views on crime and what can be done to stop it. Jessamy has been a very vocal critic of the police department, particularly quality of life arrests, because she has seen the way distrust between citizens and police affects all aspects of law enforcement in the city, especially juries.

"If they've ever been stopped by the police, if they've had a relative who's been stopped by the police, if they have had any negative experience, then they bring that experience with them when they're asked to weigh the evidence," Jessamy says.

But the courts could use an image makeover as well. There is a sense that there is little consequence to committing crimes in Baltimore, that even if you are arrested (39.3 percent of 2007's official homicides have been closed), you are unlikely to be convicted or do serious time.

Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge John Glynn has seen this attitude firsthand. He spent the last five years as the head judge of the city's criminal docket and as chairman of the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, which brings together representatives of various city and state agencies to coordinate strategies for dealing with criminal justice issues. Glynn stepped down in January. "Five years has enabled me to figure out what it's possible to do inside the system and what is impossible to do," he says. "I've done what I think I can realistically be expected to do with this.

"The system at the moment doesn't really provide what I would call a credible deterrent," Glynn says. The court system is extremely overburdened and has the capacity to try only about 5 percent of the felony cases it gets, leading to a premium on plea deals. "You're buying off the defendant's right to a jury trial by offering them a plea bargain," he says. "So that automatically drives down the value of the case." That value is further decreased by a belief that the jury won't be sympathetic to the state and by the difficulty of finding and keeping witnesses.

Jessamy says the witness issue is a particular problem. "We cannot put violent criminals behind bars and keep them there without evidence," she says. "Evidence ends up being, in most instances, eyewitness testimony. We need people to come forward to provide that."

In order for people to do that they must feel safe, a hard sell in the city where Stop Fuckin' Snitching was filmed. Jessamy says her office works hard to combat this problem. In 2005 a state law she championed was passed, creating stiffer penalties for witness intimidation as well as making it possible for a witness' previous statements to be used in court if he or she was intimidated. Her office also provides witnesses with a variety of services, from relocating families to getting witnesses into drug treatment.

But Jessamy's office is willing to use the stick as well as the carrot. "We also do body attachments for witnesses that we find who are reluctant to testify," she says. "That's the last resort, keeping them in jail until the trial comes," which could be quite some time considering the frequency with which trials are postponed.

It's a practice that local private defense attorney Margaret Mead, who frequently represents people charged with homicide, finds troubling. "If a witness doesn't show up, they can lock them in jail. Have you been over to the city jail?" Mead asks. "Talk about a place of witness intimidation. If I thought I was going to get locked up in Baltimore City jail, Mr. Prosecutor, I'm going to say whatever you want me to say."

Mead says that witnesses are sometimes pressured by the police to finger someone and are often more interested in getting themselves out of trouble than in providing accurate information. She also challenges the widely held belief that if a jury doesn't convict it means a killer walks free. "I think there are so many not-guilties because the person maybe didn't do it. Maybe they just rushed and arrested somebody for statistics' sake," Mead says. "Once [the police] arrest somebody, whether they did it or not is not the issue. Once they arrest somebody it goes from open to closed, and they stop any investigation."

Ginger Beale is a fan of Patricia Jessamy, though she would probably just as soon have never heard of the woman. In December, Jessamy threw a Christmas party for the mothers of homicide victims. "It was so nice of her," Beale says. "There was a tree with our sons' names on it, and she came and sat beside us, talked to us, held our hands."

As much as she appreciates Jessamy and the State's Attorney's Office's Family Bereavement Center, where Beale met her new friend Maria Whiting in a support group, Beale says she feels that few public officials truly care about what she or Whiting or any of the mothers of homicide victims go through.

Beale and Whiting attended a rally in front of City Hall in October aimed at drawing attention to the murder crisis--no elected officials came, and she is angry about that. At the same time, Philadelphia was holding rallies led by elected officials, and an effort to recruit 10,000 African-American men to take back the streets filled a local arena to near capacity.

Cheatham, who helped organize the Baltimore event, was likewise unimpressed: "Our elected officials are sad. Many of these folks have been in office five, 10, 15, 20 years. They should bear some of the brunt and responsibility. Almost every one of them has run on either an education or a crime and violence platform, when in fact, what are they delivering? Little to nothing."

If elected officials seem unmotivated, so do many citizens. At the rally, organizers planned to have people lie in the grass in front of City Hall, to illustrate the fallen, but fewer people showed up than there had been homicide victims at that point in the year, and the grass was wet so organizers didn't require participants to lie down.

Glynn says a lack of interest in the issue by politicians makes sense, rationally. "When you think about it, by definition the people in power have been treated well by the status quo," he says. Why would they want to change the very system that put them in power? Glynn says citizens' seeming disinterest comes from a different place: the belief that Baltimore's crime is not everyone's problem, that it is just criminals killing criminals, so law-abiding citizens have nothing to fear.

According to police, 87 percent of last year's homicide victims had criminal records, 64 percent for violent offenses. In 2007, as in years past, Baltimore homicide victims have been largely young and almost entirely African-American. African-Americans make up 65 percent of the city's population but 91 percent of its '07 homicide victims--African-American men who were shot to death accounted for all but 66 of the homicide victims. In the same year, 63 percent of victims were under the age of 30 and 51 were teenagers.

Christopher Clarke's funeral was packed with kids and teachers from his high school. A picture of him on the program for the service shows a handsome young African-American man with a confident smile. Everyone describes him as a leader, a prototypical good kid, talented, smart, courteous, athletic, heavily involved in his church. The 18-year-old planned to attend the police academy after graduation.

Clarke was visiting some friends a few blocks from his home in Belair-Edison on March 13 when a gunfight broke out on the street. While three gunmen sprayed the street with bullets, firing at each other, Clarke was struck in the head and killed. He did not have a criminal record.

A number of other people without criminal records were murdered in 2007, many through robberies or random run-ins that suggest that increased criminal activity doesn't care about neighborhood boundaries. On March 3, Charles Erdman was intentionally dragged 40 feet beneath a car after getting into a minor traffic accident with a man, who had stolen a car. Marcus McDowell, 16, was shot and killed during a robbery in Lauraville on Jan. 8, one of at least 19 deadly robberies last year. Michael Simms, a Marine who had just returned home from boot camp, tried to stop a fight in the Fells Point area and was stabbed in the heart on June 10.

Beale's son Harold Robinson was part of the 87 percent who had criminal records. "Yes, he had a record, I ain't ashamed to say it, but, thank you Jesus, he changed his life," Beale says. Robinson, whom friends called Murt, used to sell drugs and did 10 years in prison, but in the last couple of years he had walked away from that life, she says. "I knew he had changed because my daughter, who's a police, gave him a key to her house," Beale remembers. "That was something he was so proud of."

Robinson had a job at a car dealership during the day and worked nights as a bouncer at Club International in Southwest Baltimore. On Feb. 11, a small group of men were kicked out of the club for, among other things, peeing in the middle of the floor. It was early afternoon and Robinson wasn't there--he worked the evening shift. That night the men came back and shot Robinson, not caring that he wasn't the bouncer who had thrown them out.

Beale doesn't feel that her son's murder is less important because he did time. "I don't care whether they were selling drugs, what they were doing. You had no business killing nobody," she says. "I just miss my son so much, because he loved his mother, that's one thing I know for sure."

Fifty-three of last year's homicide victims were under the age of 20, as were 42 of those suspected of 2007 homicides. "You get a gun in a 15-year-old's hand, anything can happen," defense attorney Margaret Mead says. "There's no thought process there." Her clients tend to be young, 17 or 18 on average: "It's extremely rare that I have somebody that's 30."

They are often poorly educated kids, she says, who feel unsafe in their neighborhoods and find it easy to get a gun yet have little understanding of the consequences of firing one. "When I go see them at the jail, they're in shock," Mead says. "I have a lot of clients who don't understand the charges. They don't understand how they got themselves into this. And a lot of times they cry. It's heartbreaking."

When looking at the problem of youth violence this year, the word "gangs" was rarely far from anyone's lips. The gang problem did not materialize fully formed in 2007 but has been quietly building for years. Baltimore has long been a town of neighborhood crews, but groups are now increasingly claiming affiliations with national gangs that are often more symbolic than tangible. Still, Mead says many of her clients felt they had to join gangs for protection, only to be forced to commit crimes to prove their allegiance. Gangs also can provide a sense of family often missing for kids raised largely by the street.

As director of the Center for the Prevention of Youth Violence at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Philip Leaf has spent a lot of time trying to figure out why Baltimore's youth are so disproportionately victims and perpetrators of violence.

What he's found is young people living under conditions of unbelievable stress. They are surrounded by loss, through death, drug abuse, and incarceration, and an amount of violence that is at a war-zone level.

"I think it's worse than a war environment, because in a war environment the community is mobilized," Leaf says. "There are clear enemies and nonenemies. The society structures itself. It moves things to safe havens. It tries to establish truces.

"I think the youth in Baltimore, for the most part, are having perfectly natural responses to stresses and environments that they shouldn't be experiencing," Leaf says. "One of the things that happens in these circumstances is people become hypervigilant. If [I'm] worried that something bad could happen to me, I've got to make sure I get that other person first. And if you have access to a weapon, getting that other person first might not be just punching them."

Many people who deal with crime in Baltimore are concerned that a large portion of the population is suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder. There are parts of town where everyone knows someone who has been murdered, where if you ask a group of young men if they've ever been shot, they immediately raise their shirts to show scars as one might show off an old playground injury.

Children are being raised in these environments. And they are often being raised without one or both of their parents, having lost them to violence, disease, or incarceration. And due to rampant drug addiction, children can be effectively abandoned even if their parents are still around. This cycle has been at work for generations now, perpetuating an underclass in Baltimore where suffering from and inflicting violence has become just another brutal fact of life, alongside poverty, drug abuse, and lack of opportunities.

When asked why there isn't more outrage over this situation, Glynn's answer is simple: "To have outrage you have to have hope."

Homicide in Baltimore is not a theoretical problem for the family members of victims, nor for Dr. Carnell Cooper, who has spent more than a decade trying to put gunshot victims back together at Maryland Shock Trauma Center. "As a surgeon, it's really frustrating to see someone roll through the door that you look at them and you go, `Gee this guy looks familiar,'" he recounts. "And you realize, `I operated on him six months ago . . . and now he's back here, and he's a gunshot wound to the head, and there is nothing I can do because that gunshot wound is fatal.'"

Listen:
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Dr. Carnell Cooper has been a trauma surgeon at the University of Maryland Medical Center for more than 10 years. He is also the founder of the Violence Intervention Program, which helps patients make changes in their lives that will decrease their risks of being the target or perpetrator of violence in future. In this clip from a recent interview, Cooper explains what it is like to tell a homicide victimís family that their child, parent, or sibling has died.

In 1998, Cooper founded the Violence Intervention Program ("GSW," Feature, March 30, 2005), which aims to help Shock Trauma patients get out of a lifestyle where they are likely to become victims of violence. The idea of VIP was to find out what the risk factors were for its clients and how those risk factors could be diminished. But the most important thing in some ways, Cooper says, was just deciding that the socioeconomic ills that were such a big factor in people turning to crime or getting caught up in violence could be diminished at all--that the situation was not hopeless and that Shock Trauma could help fix the problem rather than just patching up the aftermath.

"We're losing a whole generation here," he says. "We need to treat it as a crisis if we're going to make a difference." And it's not enough to expect people to be able to improve their station on their own, especially after decades of living mired in poverty, drugs, crime, and neglect. "If you're going to ask people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps," Cooper notes, "you got to make sure first that everyone has boot straps."

People like to talk about taking a "holistic" approach to stopping violence, but it's not always clear what that means. For VIP and the Center for the Prevention of Youth Violence it means focusing on all the needs of their clients, whether it's drug treatment, job training, education, counseling, or help reconnecting with their families. And if it's all of the above, as is often the case, then they address all of the above.

Problems don't exist in a vacuum, but Leaf says too often city services have treated them this way, creating silos of service. If you have a drug problem, you may get sent to drug treatment, but that won't help you find a place to live where you won't be staying with drug addicts, or get a job so you can afford to live there. Programs also rarely address the whole family. "We have substance-abuse services, but they often don't look at the children," Leaf says. "Or we have children who are getting services, and we don't recognize that their parent is a substance abuser, and maybe besides dealing with the child's problem, we need to deal with the parent's problem."

When Sheila Dixon became mayor, she promised a holistic approach to crime fighting, that her administration would not just react to crime but also would try to fix the problems in the city that cause it. One of the major tenets of her plan is community engagement, getting services to those who need them. In a recent interview, Dixon points to Operation Protect, which spends six weeks in a neighborhood bringing services to the people living there and getting them to participate in cleaning up their streets. She also wants to foster a better relationship between law enforcement and the community through foot patrols. "We've begun that process where we're out more," Dixon says. "We're getting our cops to be on the street working with our citizens patrolling the area, gaining back some trust factors."

Dixon stresses that her version of a holistic approach doesn't mean being soft on crime. Community engagement is just one of three prongs in her crime plan. She also is focusing law-enforcement efforts on arresting violent repeat offenders and getting illegal guns off the street. One of tools used to do this is Baltimore Exile, a program under which many gun cases are prosecuted federally. Offenders convicted federally are sent to out-of-state prisons and are not eligible for parole, perhaps providing the credible deterrent that Judge Glynn feels is missing.

Again, the plan sounds familiar. Mayor Schmoke's last police commissioner, Thomas Frazier, came to Baltimore from San Jose, Calif., promising to clean up crime using community policing methods similar to Dixon's, right down to the foot patrols, but he was never able to bring the homicide number below 300. Harvard's Kennedy suggested targeted enforcement efforts nearly a decade ago, but they never got traction.

Integral to the success of Baltimore Exile and other crime-fighting strategies is cooperation between various city, state, and federal law enforcement agencies. Such cooperation has long been elusive in Baltimore, but in recent interviews Dixon, Jessamy, and Bealefeld all pointed out how well they are now working together--if true, a stark contrast to recent years.

Rod Rosenstein, the U.S. Attorney for Maryland, agrees that cooperation has greatly improved. He says his office, along with city police and prosecutors, developed a solid plan for Baltimore Exile and that the agencies are in frequent communication. "To me, I think the personal relationships are really more important than what you write down on paper, and we've been able to accomplish both, having an effective written strategy and the personal relationships to implement that strategy," Rosenstein says.

Complete 2007 figures were not available at press time, but through Oct. 20, 154 defendants were indicted federally through Baltimore Exile, more than in all of 2006.

This united front has made a lot of people optimistic about bringing the homicide rate down and increasing public safety, even some who aren't prone to optimism. "I'm not totally pessimistic," Norris says. "I feel better going into '08 than I have the last couple of years. I think we have a better shot now."

Of course, optimism doesn't equal performance. The electorate that swept O'Malley into the mayor's office was optimistic, but he was not able to keep the crime numbers down. Still, there is no denying that things have improved. While 2007 was still the most murderous year this decade, it was so by a much smaller margin than expected early in the year.

"A lot of people talk about 300 as some sort of bellwether," Commissioner Bealefeld says. "It strikes me as so arbitrary. The bottom line on the whole thing is that in terms of violence or crime in the city, you have to start with the supposition that one's too many. You really have to fight every day, every single day, to keep that down."

And as of Jan. 21, there have been 11 fewer homicides this year than at the same date last year.

Now the question is, can things continue in this vein? "We're all on the same page," Jessamy says. "But we can't get off the same page. We got to stay on it long enough so that people can learn the tune and we can make a determination as to whether it's working. If you change the strategy every six months, or once a year, you don't know whether the strategy is working or not, because you haven't had time enough to tell."

And only time will tell if the dip in violence we've seen in recent months holds, if we will look back at the beginning of 2007 as a catastrophe that sparked real change, or if we will look back at the end of '07 as simply the eye of the storm. Perhaps, at very least, enough hope will be generated for Baltimore to finally get outraged.

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