BALTIMORE — It has been a bleak winter in the housing projects and row houses where Baltimore's narcotics dealers dispense crack and heroin like fast-food orders. Warring factions are killing rivals at a relentless clip. The bodies have mounted at a rate of almost one a day over the last month.
The numbers are harrowing -- 36 homicides since Jan. 1 -- and the city's mayor, Martin O'Malley, has agonized about them.
Crime was at the top of O'Malley's agenda when he delivered a sobering "state of the city" speech last week to the City Council; he then asked council members to endorse his anti-crime strategy by appointing his nominee for police commissioner. Despite Baltimore's lingering reputation as the most violent city in America, O'Malley said, "we have led America's big cities in reducing violence."
As he grapples with the latest killing wave, O'Malley has had to contend with another nagging statistic -- five commissioners have come and gone since he was elected mayor five years ago. The revolving door at police headquarters on Fayette Street has complicated O'Malley's crime-fighting campaign, eroding officers' morale, deepening public cynicism and threatening to become a drag on the mayor's statewide political ambitions.
"It gives the appearance of chaos at the top," said Bert Shirey, a retired Baltimore police veteran who served briefly as the first of O'Malley's commissioners. He was succeeded by a procession of men whose exits were brought about by policy disputes, a federal corruption conviction and domestic-abuse allegations. "You end up with officers who feel whiplashed with all the change, and citizens who wonder if the department knows what it's doing."
Near the Somerset Court housing project in east Baltimore, James Boston grumbled as he hosed down salt-caked cars outside an auto body garage. "Every time you turn around, they got a new chief," Boston said. "They're not going to clean the streets up out here until they get their own act together."
Boston complained of having to watch his back in a neighborhood where gunfire is as common as birdcalls. The east Baltimore police district, with 55 homicides in 2004, led all other sectors in a city that recorded 278 killings for the year.
While New York, Los Angeles and other big cities have seen homicide rates drop over the last two years, Baltimore's tally has crept upward, from 271 killings in 2003 and 253 in 2002.
Yet like many residents weary of the violence, Boston still gives O'Malley an "A for effort" in his crusade to pare the city's homicide rate to 175 killings a year.
"He's on the right track," Boston said.
In November, 88% of Baltimore's voters reelected the reed-thin, intense O'Malley -- making the 41-year-old former prosecutor and councilman a leading Democratic contender to challenge Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich in 2006.
Since his first mayoral campaign in 1999, O'Malley has insisted that reducing drug violence is the only way to alter Baltimore's reputation as a crime-plagued city. Because his political fortunes are so entwined with his crime-fighting campaign, "his opponents will chew on the fact that the murder rate has not declined as much as he predicted," said Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr.
For decades, Baltimore's annual homicide rate, driven by drug turf wars, hovered in the 300 range -- "a nut we just couldn't crack," Shirey said. The numbers stayed high throughout the 1990s, even as the city's population fell by 17%, hemorrhaging because of suburban flight.
Impressed by New York's plunging homicide rate and the anti-crime strategies employed by then-Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and his police commissioner, William J. Bratton -- who now heads the Los Angeles Police Department -- O'Malley instituted his own crackdown.
He began judging police performance by crime statistics churned out by ComStat, a computerized program that Bratton helped pioneer with Jack Maple, a New York aide who became an O'Malley consultant. Under ComStat, officers from each of Baltimore's nine police districts appear at weekly meetings before top brass to describe how they are combating crime.
Convinced that ComStat increased police efficiency by holding commanders accountable, O'Malley has spread use of computer analysis to other city departments. But some police veterans worry that the weekly ComStat meetings have bordered on hazings that anxious police commanders spend hours preparing for each week.
Despite internal carping, the strategy seemed to work. Homicides plunged from 305 in 1999 to 253 in 2001. But as Baltimore's overall violent crime rate dropped -- nearly 40% since 1999 -- homicides ticked back up.
Many of this year's deaths were linked to drug turf chaos. But there also were unexplained incidents, such as the strangling of a 21-year-old Johns Hopkins University senior.