Donald Fry: Amid encouraging crime stats, a sobering reality lurks


By Donald C. Fry

The FBI’s release last Monday of 2011 crime statistics provides encouragement to residents of Baltimore City. The city has dropped out of the top 5 in the United States for murder rates. It’s now No. 6.

That’s good news, for sure. However, the sobering reality that we must also recognize is: We’re still No. 6 after 15 years of remarkable decline in Baltimore City’s homicide rate. That serves to illustrate the degree of challenge Baltimore has faced in reducing homicides and violent crime.

That challenge continues as the police commissioner, who presided over a 30 percent decline in city homicides during his five-year tenure, is retiring in a month.

There’s no dispute that the number of homicides in Baltimore City – 196 in 2011 – has declined dramatically since the late 1990s, when Baltimore was routinely enduring more than 300 homicides per year. The annual rate of violent crime has also declined, dropping from more than 16,000 in 1998 to 8,885 last year, according to FBI data.

But city leaders must be careful not to let encouraging statistics distort, in any way, the sense of urgency that remains as they search for a new police commissioner to replace Fred Bealefeld, who is retiring August 1.

In improving public safety, Baltimore is on the right track, but there’s still a lot of work to do. And it’s important to keep in mind the nature of the violent crime challenge the city continues to face.

The fact is, most neighborhoods in Baltimore City are eminently safe places to live and work, experiencing levels of homicide and violent crime that are far below the average rates for Baltimore and cities with top-five crime rates.

But in two neighborhoods in east Baltimore, the average annual homicide rate exceeds more than six homicides per 10,000 residents – almost twice Baltimore’s citywide rate and more than the average rate in the No. 1 city for homicides, New Orleans – according to Baltimore City Health Department data.

Six more city neighborhoods experience homicide rates of more than four per 10,000 – rates that exceed the average rates of the top three U.S. cities for homicides.

For five city neighborhoods, homicide is the third leading cause of death, behind cancer and heart disease, according to city data.

Among other things, Commissioner Bealefeld recognized this inherent crime profile and met significant success by shifting away from broad “zero tolerance” policing tactics to a strategic approach focusing primarily on, as he puts it, “bad guys with guns.”

This serves to underscore the top quality that should be sought in the next commissioner: a strong penchant for developing and implementing strategy. In a job as complex as managing Baltimore’s police force, it is imperative that its leader resist the temptation to skip over strategy and go directly to tactics.

It would also benefit the city if the new commissioner would build on the current successful strategic approach, rather than scrape it and start over.

To be successful, the new commissioner must have the following:

• Autonomy. The new police commissioner must have the complete trust and support of City Hall and must be recognized by elected leaders in city government as the resident expert in policing.

• Resources. The police department must have sufficient fiscal and operational resources to implement an effective strategy.

• Business community support. Fully-engaged business support is essential. Such support should focus on long-term programs such as those that steer city youth away from trouble and help them develop and mature, rather than one-time “feel good” events with little long-term impact.

Accountability should also be a key crime-reduction issue, not just on the part of the police commissioner to directly address bad policing and bad cops, as Bealefeld has done, but to cultivate confidence within city communities – the force’s ultimate clients.

For their part, city communities must redouble efforts to be accountable, to support crime reduction efforts. Communities must ensure the police do not have to operate in an atmosphere of community apathy or distrust. This is a key challenge as the city’s law enforcement system continues to encounter reluctance on the part of city residents to cooperate with police investigations of violent crimes.

Baltimore City has made noteworthy progress in reducing violent crime. But statistics that demonstrate our progress also show we’re only halfway there. This is not a time to relax.

Elected officials, business owners, religious leaders and neighborhood activists must publicly express a strong sense of outrage and intolerance over the unacceptable impact of violent crime. The plague of violent crime continues to inflict pain and suffering on too many city residents and continues to detract from the city’s – and the region’s – many competitive strengths as a place to live and to work.

Our city’s elected leaders, the new police leader they select, the business community and our neighborhoods must bolster our collective resolve to strategically and aggressively reduce violent crime and strengthen public safety in Baltimore.