On the streets, Detective Danny Danzy is known as a “body snatcher.” He’s on the front lines of Baltimore‘s battle to reduce homicides, and his job is to find violent suspects who should be in jail.
The detective goes out most mornings with a list of people with warrants. He knocks on doors, taps on windows, shines his flashlight into desolate row homes. When it’s obvious a suspect is holed up inside, he uses a battering ram.
Detective Danzy is part of the city’s Warrant Apprehension Task Force, and his rounds are getting credit for reducing the homicide rate in one of the nation’s most violent cities.There were 234 homicides in 2008, down 17 percent from 2007, when the city had 282 homicides.
“It’s an encouraging start,” Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III said. “We’re posting some real results.”
But Commissioner Bealefeld and Mayor Sheila Dixon, a Democrat, don’t downplay Baltimore’s violence. For a city of about 624,000 residents, the homicide rate translates to 37.5 slayings per 100,000 people.
That rate, based on 2007 FBI data, would make Baltimore the third-bloodiest city in the nation with a population of 250,000 or more, behind Detroit and St. Louis.
Baltimore’s 2008 numbers would be lower if not for a grim finish: 52 people were slain in November and December. The city hasn’t had fewer than 200 slayings since the 1970s.
Still, the return to a total consistent with what Baltimore endured in the 1980s, when the city averaged 226 slayings per year, is welcome.
Homicides topped 300 every year during the 1990s, when the scourges of crack and heroin led to turf wars that earned Maryland’s largest city the nickname “Bodymore, Murdaland” and inspired the shows “Homicide: Life on the Street” and “The Wire.”
However, criminologist James Alan Fox of Northeastern University in Boston said a one-year drop in homicides doesn’t prove a city has found lasting solutions to violent crime.
“When cities have large one-year drops, they tend to go up the following year,” Mr. Fox said. “When cities have large one-year jumps, they tend to go down.”
Homicides nationwide are down since the mid-1990s, but in the past eight years, there have been few clear national or regional trends, said Daniel Webster, co-director of the Center for Gun Policy and Research at Johns Hopkins University.
The homicide total in the District was up slightly in 2008, while Philadelphia experienced a 15 percent drop. Detroit saw a drop of about 13 percent.
Slayings in Baltimore began declining almost immediately after Commissioner Bealefeld took over in July.
Among other things, Commissioner Bealefeld’s strategy changed how the Warrant Apprehension Task Force does business. Warrants are served more systematically, with a person’s criminal history dictating how aggressively police seek him.
On a recent morning, several teams of officers fanned out in unmarked cars, each officer with names from a list of “priority warrants.” Even on a morning when he knocked on a dozen doors in three hours without making an arrest, Detective Danzy kept his faith in the strategy.
“It’s an awesome idea. We’ve started focusing on the 1 or 2 percent that cause all the problems,” he said.
Stronger partnerships with state and federal agencies also have been critical.
U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein has made gun crime a priority since he took office in July 2005. His office works with city, state and federal agencies to identify criminals who might be candidates for federal prosecutions and to do what Mr. Rosenstein calls “proactive investigations” - using surveillance and wiretaps - to build cases against them.
The city also is getting increased cooperation from the state Division of Parole and Probation, through the new Violence Prevention Initiative. Offenders on parole or probation who fit certain criteria receive increased supervision and a zero-tolerance policy for violations.
When those offenders violate parole, warrants for their arrest become priorities for Detective Danzy and his colleagues.