Homicides in this notoriously violent city have dipped to their lowest total in 25 years, but the decline is hardly a cause for celebration.
Through Wednesday, Baltimore had recorded 222 slayings in 2010. The most recent year with fewer homicides was 1985, when William Donald Schaefer was mayor, the Baltimore Colts had just left town and 213 people were slain within the city limits.
In the meantime, violence in the city sometimes nicknamed “Bodymore” has become ingrained in pop culture, chronicled in the gritty television dramas “Homicide: Life on the Street” and “The Wire.”
But the past three years have brought glimmers of good news. The decline in homicides continues a trend that began in mid-2007, when Frederick H. Bealefeld III took over as police commissioner.
In 2008, there was a 17 percent drop to 234 slayings, a 20-year low, and last year, homicides held steady, suggesting the big drop was not a fluke.
Nonfatal shootings also have dropped — from 585 in 2008 to 450 in 2009 to 417 through Wednesday.
“There’s no champagne glasses over here. We’ve never toasted any of this business,” Bealefeld said. “But we’ve made dramatic progress.”
The decline this year comes amid upheaval in the city’s leadership. Mayor Sheila Dixon resigned in February as part of a plea deal following a corruption probe, and Stephanie Rawlings-Blake replaced her.
She kept Bealefeld as police commissioner. The two say they’ve overcome a rocky relationship forged during Rawlings-Blake’s time as city council president — “I used to be the one raking him over the coals,” she said — and found common ground on using technology and intelligence-gathering to fight crime.
Bealefeld has told officers to cut back on drug arrests and focus on repeat violent offenders — “bad guys with guns,” in his words. And there has been an even bigger drop in the number of arrests. The department locked up nearly 37,000 fewer people this year than it did in 2005 — a 37 percent decrease.
“We know that we’re focusing on the right individuals,” Rawlings-Blake said.
Still, Baltimore remains a dangerous place by any statistical measure.
Even with the recent decline, Baltimore still has a per capita homicide rate of 35 per 100,000 residents. Last year, the only cities with higher rates were New Orleans, St. Louis and Detroit.
City officials note that Boston, New York and Philadelphia have seen more homicides this year, but the rates in those cities remain far lower than Baltimore’s. And those cities have still seen big drops since the 1990s.
Since 1985, Baltimore’s population has dropped by nearly 125,000. The homicide rate, while lower than it was in the 1990s and early-to-mid-2000s, is still higher than it was in the mid-to-late 1980s.
Nationwide, the homicide rate has been cut nearly in half since its peak of 9.8 per 100,000 residents in 1991, according to the FBI. That year, there were 24,703 slayings. In 2009, there were 15,241 — a rate of five per 100,000.
Experts say that drop can largely be attributed to changing demographics: America’s aging population means there are fewer people who are statistically likely to kill. That and other broad trends — such as the end of the crack cocaine epidemic — are likely more responsible for Baltimore’s homicide rate than any specific policing strategy, according to criminologists.
Baltimore’s homicide rate peaked at 49.4 in 1993 and has generally been declining since.
However, experts don’t discount the impact of Bealefeld’s approach. He believes he can prevent homicides by focusing police resources on locking up the right people before they kill.
“For many years, police departments treated crime almost like it was a natural phenomenon, like bad weather,” said Gary LaFree, a University of Maryland criminologist. “More efficient use of policing can make a difference. It’s probably not a 50 percent difference, but it can be a 10 percent difference.”
The mayor and police commissioner said it’s more than that.
“We’re here and we’re living it. We know what we did last year,” Rawlings-Blake said. “We know how we refined the practices and the deployments, and we can show week to week (with statistics) that it’s having an impact.”
For all Bealefeld’s preaching about gun offenders, dangerous people continue to roam the streets — sometimes even when police know who they are and what they’ve done. Last year, according to police, Raymond Woodland shot a man in the face with a TEC-9 semiautomatic assault pistol inside a downtown hotel. Two men retaliated and severely beat Woodland.
Police pledged that Woodland would be charged after his release from the hospital. But he wasn’t — although the men accused of beating him await trial. And on Sunday morning, Woodland, 20, was shot to death.
“We dropped the ball,” Bealefeld said. But he argued that Woodland shouldn’t be blamed for becoming “the unfortunate victim of yet more violence.”
Woodland was in many ways a typical victim: More than 85 percent of this year’s homicide victims, and nearly 90 percent of known suspects, had criminal records. Victims had been arrested an average of 10 times, according to statistics provided by the mayor’s office.
James Alan Fox, a Northeastern University criminologist, said the city has done well to sustain the big decline that started in 2008 but may struggle to get homicides to drop much further.
“At some point you’re going to reach a point where the challenge is to maintain the low level. You’re not going to see much improvement,” Fox said. “You can’t eliminate murder, unfortunately.”