Baltimore falls out of top 5 murder rate cities

By Justin Fenton, The Baltimore Sun

7:06 PM EDT, June 11, 2012

For the first time in years, Baltimore is no longer among the nation’s five deadliest cities, according to statistics for 2011 compiled by the FBI and released Monday.

Baltimore saw a 12 percent decline in murders last year, with the total dropping below 200 for the first time since 1978. Taking population changes into account, the murder rate per 100,000 people was the lowest since the late 1980s.

Meanwhile, the number of reported rapes jumped significantly, to levels not seen since 2000. The change followed reforms that were carried out in response to The Baltimore Sun’s reporting that city police appeared to be discarding such cases at the highest rate in the nation.

Outgoing Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III, whose appointment in mid-2007 coincides with declines in murders and nonfatal shootings, credited partners such as the school system and state parole and probation agents with helping to drive down gun violence. But he gave particular praise to the Police Department’s officers.

“There’s a lot of people that want to stand up and take credit, but the rank-and-file cops are the ones out there every day doing the hard work,” Bealefeld said.

In a statement, Gov. Martin O’Malley cheered the declines. “Though this is a good step in the right direction, there is still more work to do as just one life lost to violent crime is one too many,” he said. “Together, we can make Baltimore a safer and better place for our children.”

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, through a spokesman, declined comment on the ranking but said she remains encouraged by the city’s declines in overall gun violence. In addition to the drop in murders, nonfatal shootings have dropped from 651 in 2007 to 381 last year.

Tom Noonan, president and CEO of Visit Baltimore, said few of the city’s 21.3 million annual visitors check FBI statistics; most hear about the city from friends or relatives, or travel for specific events. But he said the move down the rankings represented progress.

Bealefeld said that at the beginning of his tenure, getting the city out of the top five was a big priority. “Does anyone really pay attention to who’s No. 6 or 7, or No. 8? But they pay attention to that top five,” he said.

Despite Baltimore’s reductions in murders and nonfatal shootings in recent years, other cities have seen drops as well, and that has kept Baltimore in the top five among cities with 100,000 people or more. It was No. 4 in 2010 and 2008, and No. 5 in 2009. The latest statistics put Baltimore sixth in 2011, behind Newark, N.J.

The FBI cautions against ranking cities because of a variety of factors, such as density, that make comparisons difficult. For example, the boundaries of cities such as Baltimore and Washington, D.C., are drawn tightly around an urban core, where others’ boundaries include wide suburban areas.

Still, there’s no doubt Baltimore has been plagued by gun violence, and it has ranked near the top of such lists year after year.

The city’s murder rate of 31.3 killings per 100,000 people remains high, and Baltimore will have to experience even sharper declines to reach the levels of neighbors such as Philadelphia (21.2) and Washington (17.5). Boston’s murder rate is 10.1, and New York City’s is 6.3.

As of Monday, murders in Baltimore were up about 9 percent over the same period last year.

The FBI released preliminary data for 2011, submitted by 14,000 departments across the country. Violent crime fell 4 percent last year, the agency said, the fifth straight decline despite the poor economy. Property crimes were down 0.8 percent, while robberies — considered a bellwether crime — dropped across all city groupings.

The number of forcible rapes reported in Baltimore jumped — from 265 in 2010 to 341 in 2011. The Sun reported in mid-2010 that for years, the Police Department had labeled cases “unfounded” at the highest rate in the country.

Baltimore reported 470 rapes in 1998, but that number had tumbled to 158 by 2009 amid an increase in the number of cases labeled “unfounded” by detectives. After The Sun’s report, Rawlings-Blake ordered an audit and formed a task force for continued oversight of how police handled such cases.

The sex offense unit was also revamped, with detectives replaced and members of the unit sent to training, while a public outreach campaign called “Rape is not your fault” was launched last year in conjunction with area non-profits.

Women’s advocates pointed to problems in Baltimore, among other cities, in a renewed push to broaden the federal definition of rape for the first time in 70 years — it was eventually approved by the FBI. Bealefeld, who spoke to a panel that met in Baltimore to discuss the change, said he was “honored to participate in that.”

“Cops want to do it right, and we should always be constantly challenging ourselves on how we can provide the best outcomes to the victims of these heinous crimes,” he said.

In an e-mail, Rawlings-Blake’s spokesman Ryan O’Doherty said the mayor was “proud of the significant reforms she put in place to improve handling of rape allegations and investigations.”

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