Homicide count falls
My column in today's print editions is about murdered Baltimore youth, and the efforts of Rev. Jan Hamill to remember them in a traditional New Year's Day vigil. It's a sad ceremony in which a candle is lit for each victim and then blown out on the altar at the Episcopal Cathedral of the Incarnation on North Charles Street.
I plan to attend the vigil and provide you with updates. I met with Hamill yesterday and found her frustrated. She knows that her vigil won't stop the killings, but she's angry over the lack of outrage. "People should be marching through the streets," she told me. The people who come to her vigil are mostly the regulars. Few families attend -- most probably don't even know about it -- but she told me that no pastors or clergy from other churches come either.
There are others like Hamill trying to make a difference in their own small ways. I met with Mille Brown yesterday. You might remember her from last year when my colleague Dan Rodricks wrote about her efforts to sell T-shirts designed by her son. "Save our children. Stop the killing," they said. Proceeds went to a program to help children. This year, Brown is back with a calendar called "Save Our Children." She works as an operating room assistant at Johns Hopkins Hospital, which gives her a sad perspective on violence. Each month it shows children -- happy children, hugging and playing. "Who said you could take our lives?" it says in August. "Stop. We want to live." Brown can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
City police and other leaders point to Baltimore's lowest homicide count in 20 years and say it vindicates their strategies, pouring cops into three violent areas and concentrating on repeat violent offenders. It's a far cry from the social policing we had during the Schmoke years and the lock-them-all-up and throw-away-the-key policing we had just a few years ago. It's probably a good middle ground -- but I'm always struck that when the crime numbers go down, police hail their strategies as successful, and when the numbers tank it suddenly becomes a problem that police can't solve.
I think everyone is right. Former Commissioner Edward T. Norris was right when he told cops they could do something about crime. A motivated police force can work wonders on the street. But Norris was frustrated by the lack of help -- his office was at war with prosecutors and there was no coordinated strategy with other agencies, such as parole and probation. With the number of repeat offenders out there, keeping track of proven criminals can't be over emphasized. But Thomas C. Frazier, when he ran the department, also had it right, taking over recreation centers. It was widely viewed as soft policing, but Frazier recognized that the city was failing its youth and a military-style coup was needed to take after-school programs away from the drug dealers and city agencies who did little to help.
The numbers in today's story by Justin Fenton are good news. Homicides down from 282 last year to 234 with just hours to go in 2008. The homicide number is faulty -- as I reported several weeks ago -- including victims from years past and not including cases investigated by agencies other than city police (such as killings in state prisons located in Baltimore). But the number, for better or worse, remains a way of measuring whether the city is safe -- scaring some, for others solidifying its role as a national symbol for what's wrong with American cities, a sign for still others that the city is making a comeback.
As the Police Department's statistics show year after year, your chances of being killed in Baltimore are slim unless you are engaged in some sort of questionable activity -- buying or dealing drugs, the prime example. Countless people go in and out of the inner city every day and don't get killed -- nurses making home visits or going to work at Johns Hopkins, home health aides, people delivering food, mail carriers. The people we really cry about are the so-called "innocent victims" who have no choice but to live where they live and get caught in someone else's deadly game, such as the child who was hit by a bullet as he delivered grapefruit to an elderly neighbor.
So let's be happy that fewer people were killed in 2008 compared to bloodier years in the previous two decades. But let's also remember that crime is still a problem, and good numbers on the homicide front shouldn't mask that fact.
Police statistics from Dec. 13 show larceny from autos up 10 percent this year -- 6,589 cars broken into through mid-December of this year. Stealing actual cars is down slightly, but still stands at 5,114. Residential burglaries are up 6 percent, to 5,124. At the same time, arrests for burglaries remain the same as last year, 1,370, and arrests for larcenies are down nearly 19 percent, from 962 in 2007 to 773 this year.
And while homicides with guns are down from 222 to 181 (through Dec. 13), robberies with guns are up 8 percent, to 2,216.
That's a lot of people. And a lot of work before we start celebrating a safer Baltimore.
Patrick R. Lynch of BP Lubricants USA, Inc. on Pulaski Highway sent me this e-mail this morning. He gave me permission to publish it:
The youth's murder that stands out to me is the one of the "good neighbor" teenager who was delivering grapefruit to an elderly neighbor. I have played out that incident in my mind's eye numerous times.
Imagine this young man's mother, waiting patiently for her son to return home after doing his benevolent deed. Waiting, waiting for what? News of her son's murder. I feel for this poor woman, the hurt she will have to endure the remainder of her life. How does a parent surmount the tremendous grief at the loss of a son or daughter (more specifically to an inexplicable murder)? To me it's unimaginable.
When was the blueprint created that outlines that murders are simply acknowledged as being an accepted and tolerated piece of the puzzle known as survival/existence in a large American metropolis? As a society that has grown inured to murder, how can we begin to deconstruct that heinous blueprint and begin the arduous task of putting another in place? And how soon?
Have a safe New Year...
Here's what the back page of the calendar looks like: