By Justin Fenton
BALTIMORE - In Baltimore's most stubbornly violent districts, police have taken a decidedly different approach this year: staying put.
As the city continues to march toward a historic year-to-year drop in homicides, two of the biggest success stories are coming from the Eastern and Western districts, which have long been among the city's bloodiest.
Police leaders say a major factor is the consistent presence of an enforcement team focused on developing intelligence on violent criminals who frequent those areas.
"History repeats itself," said Deputy Commissioner Anthony Barksdale. "Historically, there's going to be more violence and more trouble in these areas. It's a basic principle: cops at the right areas, at the right times. ... They're out there to do one thing: get bad guys with guns."
With less than three months to go in 2008, there have been 172 homicides this year compared with 238 at this point last year - good for a 28 percent drop.
If that pace holds, the city would record the largest single-year decrease - both as a percentage and in raw numbers - of any year since at least 1970.
Police said there are many possible explanations for the decline in homicides this year, including greater coordination between local, state and federal authorities.
But they believe the city's new approach to these perennially dangerous corners of the city has been a factor.
In the past, they said, there was a tendency to shift resources in response to developing crises, a temporary solution that sought to prevent incidents from spiraling out of control but which potentially left other areas vulnerable. And leaders say such rapid deployments are still a useful and necessary strategy as police evaluate crime trends on a day-to-day, sometimes hour-by-hour basis.
The geography factor
But members of the recently formed Violent Crime Impact Division's enforcement team remain rooted in the Eastern and Western districts, along with the Northwest District. Police declined to disclose the number of officers in those teams, which supplement beat officers and other units operating in the area.
"The thinking behind it is, if you map out violent crime and look at homicides and shootings in general, you'll see they occur in the same geographical areas," said Col. Dean Palmere, who heads the VCID unit. "Once you identify and learn those individuals in those geographical boundaries, and you work up historical information, it gives you a guide - it gives you what window you should be looking in."
So far this year, homicides have dropped faster in the Eastern and the Western districts than elsewhere in the city.
As of the beginning of this month, homicides were down 37 percent in the Eastern District, from 41 last year to 26 this year, and a stunning 47 percent in the Western District, from 34 to 18. Only the Southeastern District can lay claim to a bigger drop. Like the rest of the city, however, the overall violent crime rate is virtually unchanged in those districts.
Getting the guns
Last year, Mayor Sheila Dixon directed police to find and imprison the city's most violent residents, an effort that emphasized getting guns off the streets and strengthening partnerships with city and federal prosecutors as well as state parole and probation agents and community organizations. Along with a change in philosophy, Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III also had to make structural changes within the Police Department.
Bealefeld, who assumed control of the department last July amid an upswing in murders, pulled roughly 250 officers into the VCID. It includes uniformed, plainclothes and undercover officers, as well as members of the regional vehicle task force, the gun trace task force and the drug trafficking team.
A sizable portion of the officers are assigned to the Eastern, Western and Northwestern districts, armed with lists of people with violent criminal histories.
The targets are residents who have been convicted of violent crimes and are out on probation, residents who have been charged with violent crimes but found not guilty, as well as residents who have been homicide suspects but were never charged.
To better coordinate their efforts, Palmere's VCID officers and the patrol officers, led by Col. John Skinner, were placed under a "unified command" in which officials confer regularly on deployment strategies. Barksdale said previous efforts were "fractured," with various units sometimes working within blocks of each other but unaware of each others' presence.
Officials say they are sharing resources more quickly and more effectively, mixing and matching units based on needs. Though the enforcement teams in the three districts largely stay put, every district gets some VCID presence, they said.
"If we see a problem starting to develop, and it's really hitting, we make the call very quickly and move resources literally from all around the city to address that problem," said Skinner.
"I think we've been successful in preventing those single incidents from becoming multiple incidents down the road."
Deputy Commissioner Deborah Owens has also provided administrative officers to supplement patrols in areas experiencing increase in crimes. Her division has been providing officers for foot patrols on Friday and Saturday nights in the Southwest District, which Dixon called "the worst" at community meeting this week.
"The admin side is providing cops for them to get the job done," Owens said.
Barksdale praised the work of all the officers on the streets.
"The bottom line is, it's nice to get to the point where we're wearing these white [command staff] shirts. ... But it's being done by the men and women wearing the blue shirts. That's where the hustle is. We can call the plays, but if they don't execute, it's nowhere."
But he said with the resources poured into the neighborhoods, the good results are expected.
"With the investment there? These are some of our best [officers], and we need them to help fight the worst of the worst in these areas," Barksdale said. "There better be some type of good results, or I'll be hearing from the [commissioner], and there will be changes."