Way of the Gun

Once a homicide hotbed, Baltimore dramatically reduced its murder rate last year. Unfortunately for us, Philadelphia can't follow suit until the state changes its outmoded gun laws. (Don't hold your breath.)

By Brian Hickey
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Jan. 31, 2001

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Long the second highest of America's 30 largest cities (behind Gary, Ind.), Baltimore's violent crime rate had nowhere to go but down. While most of the country saw its crime rate plummet during the last decade, East Baltimore--the city's most violent section--had a murder rate five times higher than New York's and seven times higher than the national average. Though Baltimore has less than half Philadelphia's population--roughly 650,000--there were nine more homicides in Baltimore in 1999.

Making matters worse, the police department squad that handles those cases--the one chronicled in a TV series and the book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets--solved just 166 of 305 slayings. It would have been easy to give up and turn the drug-infested streets over to the criminals who already seemed to be winning the battle.

But Martin O'Malley, the city's new Democratic mayor, had a different idea. That idea evolved into a plan that has since made Baltimore a leader in the war against murder.

"The thing that's important to understand is that it got really bad here," says O'Malley, 38, who moved up from City Council to mayor in December 1999. "We got numb to it. The police were told there was nothing they could do about it, that they couldn't make a difference. When you're told there's nothing you can do, that's exactly what you do."

In classic law-and-order fashion, O'Malley's message to Baltimore was that something could be done. And that he was the man to do it.

Knowing he would be judged by the anti-crime fervor that propelled him into office, O'Malley moved quickly. He hired a pair of NYPD crime-mapping consultants to develop an attack plan that included COMSTAT--a system that analyzes crime data and quickly disseminates it to cops on the street (Philadelphia implemented the system in 1998).

And he hired Edward Norris, a New York Police deputy commissioner who had worked with current Philadelphia Police Commissioner John Timoney, to lead the 3,146-member Baltimore force. It didn't take Norris long to figure out that drugs were behind a majority of the city's killings, and he used that information to guide his changes to department policy.

Norris ended the department's practice of shipping homicide detectives out of the unit after three-year stints. He hoped longer tours in the same unit would bring continuity to a group that had seen its success rate hit rock bottom by the end of the '90s. Then, despite being strapped for cash, the city offered police officers 7-, 8- and 9-percent raises to prevent them from defecting to safer gigs in the suburbs.

In 1995, a first-year Baltimore police officer earned $25,496. Now a rookie out of the academy makes $31,000, the same as a first-year Philadelphia officer. (Concerned about the city's lack of funds, several street-level cops in Baltimore's Eastern District privately wondered whether they'd ever actually see the raises, but the state pitched in to help defray the huge expense).

Though he had studied the issue prior to his election, Mayor O'Malley depended on Commissioner Norris--hired for his role in reducing New York's homicide rate from 2,245 in 1990 to 671 nine years later--to implement the nuts and bolts of the plan.

Having determined that most violence in Baltimore was drug-related, the city's police went after open-air drug markets. They even started using wires and other investigative technology, a practice their predecessors had eschewed. "Now we have more wires than at any other time in the city's history," says Norris.

Just four Baltimore police officers were assigned to the department's warrant squad in the late '90s; now 75 spend their days tracking down violent offenders. As a result, the number of suspects nabbed on murder warrants has shot from 16 to 118.

"They're out there kicking in the right doors at three in the morning," says a proud O'Malley of his city's finest.

"We had a small core of crooks causing all sorts of grief," says Norris. "Now we're getting to them."

Internally, the Baltimore Police Department beefed up their in-house investigations to rebuild public trust. Externally, they sent more than 100 additional officers into the violence-plagued Eastern District.

Quite simply, they reinvented the way they policed the city. But not everyone was immediately convinced.

"People didn't really want a commissioner from New York," says Norris. "The criticism was that this was going to be Norris' Vietnam. That no good was going to come out of it and that people were going to get hurt."

Mayor O'Malley faced similar charges. During the election, former Mayor Kurt Schmoke used his challenger's tough stance to raise the specter of fear. "They said I wanted to make it a police state," O'Malley recalls.

In the end, though, Schmoke--and his position that drugs were more of a medical issue and less about law enforcement--were defeated. And that, according to the new mayor's supporters, is how Baltimore began to get a handle on its crime problem.

Though there was fear in some quarters of a police state, there was no jump in the total number of arrests in Baltimore, only in the number of people caught committing violent crimes. O'Malley uses this statistic to try to disprove any allegation of neo-fascism, saying the department targeted the right people without trampling on citizens' rights.

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