By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 30, 2006
The Acura Legend rested against a telephone pole in a Baltimore alley, its headlights dim, four bullet holes in its door. Inside, police reported, a man was slumped over the center console, bleeding heavily from his nose and mouth.
In a city that remains one of the nation's deadliest, the killing of Kevin Sharpe was sadly unremarkable but for this: On Aug. 21, he became Baltimore's 176th homicide victim of 2006, one more than the goal for the entire year that Martin O'Malley embraced when he became mayor seven years ago.
Now, as he runs for governor and his record on crime becomes fodder for campaign ads, O'Malley (D) points to many signs of progress, including a significant reduction in violent crime that has helped lure billions in new residential and commercial development as well as a steady stream of tourism to Charm City.
But the mayor's goal for reducing the most violent of crimes -- homicide -- to no more than 175 a year has remained stubbornly elusive. The closest Baltimore has come was in 2002, three years into O'Malley's tenure, when 253 killings were logged. Since then, progress has stalled. This year, police say, the city is on pace to match last year's total of 269.
Although significantly lower than the 300-plus homicides a year that were recorded in the 1990s, the murder count nonetheless remains a political liability.
"He made a promise that he couldn't keep and in retrospect probably shouldn't have made," said Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), whom O'Malley is trying to unseat in November. "The murder rate in Baltimore is awful, and it's an embarrassment to the state of Maryland."
Ehrlich's campaign began airing a television ad yesterday that knocks the mayor for his stewardship on public safety, citing the failed homicide goal and a frequent change in police leadership. O'Malley has appointed four police commissioners during his tenure, a rate of turnover some say has sapped the department's morale and undercut efforts to fight crime, including homicides. Also, radio ads this week decried what critics call overzealous policing in Baltimore.
"One of the downsides of declaring goals . . . is that you run the risk of being skewered when you don't hit those goals," O'Malley said in an interview. "But it's been our experience that the downside is far outweighed by the number of lives we have saved."
O'Malley was also quick to add that he controls only the city's 3,000-officer police force, not state and federal prosecutors. He said he "naively" believed in 1999 that others would be more committed to his goal. Aides say that state and federal police and drug-treatment aid to Baltimore fell after 2002.
Ehrlich's staff said that state aid to the city's criminal justice system overall increased.
Leadership at City Hall can make a difference in a community's homicide count, criminologists say, but it is certainly not the only variable. Patterns of poverty, the drug trade and gang presence also factor in.
Nationally, homicide rates have fallen substantially since the 1980s, when the emergence of crack cocaine sparked bloody turf wars. But the number of killings across the country rose 3.4 percent last year, according to FBI statistics.
After a sharp increase last year, the number of homicides in Prince George's County has fallen this year. As of yesterday, the count stood at 92, compared with 127 this time last year. In the District, the count stood at 131 yesterday, down from 144 last year and on pace for a third straight year to total fewer than 200.
Baltimore, meanwhile, had 206 killings as of yesterday -- two more than the same day last year.
O'Malley's goal of 175 originated with Baltimore's business leaders, who grew increasingly frustrated during the 1990s as the city's business climate was undercut by its deadly reputation.
While Baltimore's homicide count stood above 300, other big cities began to see substantial drops. The most dramatic came in New York City, where the number fell from 2,262 in 1990 to 629 in 1998, a development widely credited to more aggressive policing. The District's homicide count, which peaked at 482 in 1991, stood at 260 by 1998.
Watching what was happening elsewhere, leaders of the Greater Baltimore Committee challenged the 1999 mayoral candidates to embrace a goal of cutting the homicide count in half. O'Malley latched on to the figure of 175.
O'Malley's 1999 campaign focused most on closing down Baltimore's pervasive open-air drug markets. But his homicide pledge was included in a campaign booklet, which called it "a realistic goal" to be met by 2002.
O'Malley said the goal was intended to motivate a police department "in need of shock therapy." For the first few years, it arguably had that effect. Under Commissioner Edward T. Norris, a third-generation officer from New York, the department emphasized using technology to fight crime, rounding up fugitives and flooding zones of violence with more police.
"The place was a mess in a lot of ways," Norris said of the department he took over. "They weren't geared to fight crime."
Under O'Malley's direction, the department also borrowed heavily from New York's strategy, stepping up enforcement of quality-of-life offenses such as loitering, a tactic that police argue can deter more serious crime. Baltimore also copied a New York program that uses computer mapping and other technology to measure police performance and re-deploy officers.
Baltimore recorded 261 murders in 2000, the first full year of O'Malley's term, down from 305 the year before. On New Year's Eve, Norris and O'Malley celebrated the achievement with shots of Irish whiskey, Norris recalled. During this period, O'Malley also sought -- and received -- significant increases from the state for drug treatment. The homicide count continued to drop, dipping to 253 in 2002.
In late 2002, Norris left Baltimore to become the state police superintendent under Ehrlich. He later served federal prison time for misusing money from a supplemental city police fund and lying on tax returns.
Baltimore's murder count has crept back up under O'Malley's subsequent commissioners, averaging 272 annually for the past three years. The overall drop in violent crime since 1999 has been far steeper -- nearly 40 percent, if a controversial O'Malley-ordered audit of crime figures is used as a baseline, or about 26 percent using older figures.
Deputy Commissioner Marcus Brown said the department is more committed than ever to reducing homicides. But he pointed to a two-inch-thick binder to explain what officers are up against. It contained the often-lengthy criminal histories -- not of the assailants but of this year's homicide victims . "The criminals now are the majority of the victims of homicides in Baltimore," he said.
Sharpe, 35, the city's 176th homicide victim, had been arrested at least 13 times, including five times for drugs, four times for assault and once for attempted murder, according to police records.
In that 2005 attempted-murder arrest, Sharpe repeatedly struck a man in the head with an aluminum baseball bat in a dispute over a girlfriend, according to police. The charge was dismissed by prosecutors, in part because the victim failed to testify.
In his 13 arrests, the stiffest sentence Sharpe received was 30 days in jail for a drug conviction, according to police records. In most instances, prosecutors opted not to proceed with the case.
Therein lies a large part of the problem, said City Council member James B. Kraft (D). He said the office of Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy (D) routinely drops charges it should not and agrees to lighter sentences than it should, particularly in gun cases.
Jessamy and her aides, meanwhile, cite what they call shoddy police work. A drug distribution charge against Sharpe, for example, was dropped this year because the arresting officer failed to show up in court. Police corruption cases have also made it more difficult to win convictions, prosecutors say.
John Morton III, a former bank executive who was the incoming chairman of the Greater Baltimore Committee when O'Malley took office, said the mayor's goal did galvanize police, as business leaders had hoped.
"In retrospect, it was probably a stretch goal and unrealistic," Morton said. "But what was important is he made it a target and tried to achieve it."