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Crime & Justiceby Mark Reutter11:45 pmJan 7, 20140

Police say they’re trying to reduce the homicide count

At an oversight hearing, several City Councilmen question effectiveness of Chief Batts’ focus on gang-busting.

Above: Deputy Police Commissioner John Skinner and Col. Darryl DeSousa (seated) discuss the city’s homicide problem.

Baltimore’s police command ticked off actions being taken to staunch the flow of homicides, while several City Councilmen advised the police about things they shouldn’t be doing.

At an oversight hearing tonight, Col. Darryl DeSousa, chief of the patrol division, said the department “needs to impose foot patrols” on city streets, improve intelligence sharing among staff, increase cooperation between police districts, and insist that officers “get out of their cars. . . so they’re not scarecrows.”

Faced with a four-year high in homicides in 2013 and eight murders during the first six days of 2014, Deputy Commissioner John Skinner said the department “took full responsibility” for the uptick in violence, although he pointed out that 59% of the homicide victims had a prior arrest record.

All crime in the city, he told the public safety committee, dropped 1% between 2012 and 2013, and he cited a 15% decrease in rape last year as a success story.

Is Focus on Gangs Working?

But several councilmen expressed concern that the approach to crime fighting by Police Chief Anthony W. Batts may be misdirected.

Councilman James Kraft cited the emphasis on “bad guys with guns” by former Chief Frederick H. Bealefeld. “When we focused on bad guys with guns, the murder rate went down. Now we’re focused on gangs, and it’s going up,” Kraft said.

Committee vice chair Brandon M. Scott cautioned that high-profile arrests of gang leaders won’t be effective unless police make sure that other criminals don’t slip into their positions. Batts, who replaced Bealefeld in 2012, was ill and did not attend last night’s meeting.

Pressed by Councilman Scott, DeSousa acknowledged a few missteps last year. “We should have jumped on it a whole lot quicker” when gun violence broke out last spring in the Western District, he said. The shooting spree around Fulton and North avenues did not die down until late summer.

Police cited several other hot spots where violence and shootings took hold last year, including Presstman St. off Pennsylvania Ave., West Baltimore and Fayette streets, Greenmount Ave. between North and 25th Street, East North Ave., East Biddle St. and North Luzerne and Milton avenues.

Weapons in the Attic

Kraft was also critical of a police initiative to take reports of non-violent crimes over the phone rather than sending an officer to the scene.

Even when police were dispatched, “it takes them 45 minutes to get there,” Kraft remarked, saying he gets many complaints from constituents in Patterson Park, Canton and Highlandtown. (Here’s an example.) Police, he said, have stepped up enforcement at Upper Broadway in Fells Point.

Kraft openly wondered if a $287,000 consultants’ report on police strategy had much worthwhile in it. DeSousa said top officers had worked with the consultants to develop the recommendations released in November.

Asking about ways to reduce the number of guns on the street, Skinner that said gun buyback programs tried in the past had been successful, to which committee chairman Warren Branch responded:

“These guns are not coming off the streets. They are not from criminals. They are old weapons stored in the attic.”

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