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Wave of street violence shakes Baltimore

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Heading into the first official weekend of summer, Baltimore police officials were pleased with how crime was trending, and, it seemed, so were residents. Total crime was down and though killings continued at one of the highest rates in the nation, there had been few dramatic spikes to draw the attention of this crime-weary city.

But a tidal wave of violence — about 40 people shot and 16 killed in the past 10 days — has shaken the city.

"We are at crisis level," said City Councilman Nick Mosby, who represents areas on the city's west side hit particularly hard by recent violence. "It's not going to get better with business-as-usual procedures."

The ongoing violence — three more shootings, one of them fatal, occurred Saturday — is calling attention once again to Baltimore's homicide rate and gun violence problem, which had been in decline in recent years. Last year, however, the number of people killed in Baltimore increased 10 percent. And at the midpoint of 2013 the number of homicides — 117 — is the highest in six years, raising questions about whether the city is backsliding.

Other cities have seen a similar trend, though crime rates have dropped significantly in Washington, New York and Dallas. Last year, violent crime rose in the United States for the first time in six years, with the largest increases occurring in cities like Baltimore with populations between 500,000 and 1 million, where homicides increased 12 percent. Among cities in that population range, Oklahoma City, Louisville, San Francisco and Memphis saw significant percentage increases, though none has a murder rate approaching Baltimore's.

Criminologists, who have been split on the reasons for the years of decline amid an economic slowdown, said it was inevitable that crime would rise.

"We may have hit the bottom and are now on our way up again," said Dennis Kenney, of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. "The fact that crime has bumped up in cities of all sizes and in all regions suggests that it is a real trend and not just a statistical anomaly. Unfortunately, it does appear that Baltimore may be leading the way."

The concerns began over Memorial Day weekend, when 12 shootings left three dead, including a 1-year-old boy in Cherry Hill.

The more recent spate of killings has sparked an outcry by city politicians and large rallies in affected neighborhoods. This week, the Police Department's chief spokesman was reassigned after drawing criticism for saying that the city was generally satisfied with crime reductions. And police said that this weekend there would be up to three times the number of officers typically on the streets, with patrol forces being supplemented by the Maryland State Police, the Maryland Transportation Authority and the city sheriff's office.

On Wednesday, Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts, who took the helm of the department last fall, qualified the progress the Baltimore had made in recent years — in contrast to the mayor's statements regarding the city's strides and the department's own statistics.

"You have to look at crime for a five-year period," he said when asked whether the city's police strategy is working. "We took some really good downturns in 2007, 2008, but the city's basically been flat since 2009. Although we had 197 [homicides] in 2011, if you really look at the stats, we've basically been flat."

John Roman, senior fellow of a Washington, D.C., criminology think tank, said in the short-term Baltimore is doing what it can, putting more officers on the streets.

"You get these days of real violence that's really not happening in other cities," said Roman of the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute. "There tends to be cycles of retaliation and [that] tends to play itself out really quickly because for police, the tendency is to throw everything at it as far as resources … but you can't do that forever."

Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, said other East Coast cities appear to be experiencing sporadic surges in violence too. It's too soon to tell what's causing the spikes, he added.

"It's [just] the past couple of weeks and we're just going to have to monitor it closely. But Baltimore isn't alone," Wexler said.

As Baltimoreans grew more concerned about the violence, Batts moved to reassure them about police efforts, while also noting recent violent weekends in Washington and Chicago. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, in a phone interview from Las Vegas with a television station, said city crime was down and like Batts noted that Washington had experienced a violent weekend.

But a closer look at Washington shows a much different picture. That city, which is similar in size and geography to Baltimore — and had far more homicides at its peak of 482 in 1991 — was down to just 88 killings last year. It is on track for an even lower figure this year. The city's "violent week" in late June consisted of four homicides, about average for Baltimore.

"The fact of the matter is, people still get very upset about crime," said Washington City Councilman Jim Graham, who often uses his Twitter account to notify residents about crime in his district. He said that gentrification contributed to the crime decline, and that the old crime rates don't matter much to the new residents.

"We can't stop, we can't let up, because I know there's still a lot of active gangs, and as long as those gangs are still in business, you have the potential for crime," Graham said.

Cities such as Washington, New York and Dallas continue to experience precipitous drops in crime rates while others, including Baltimore, have not followed suit.

And it's not just because of job growth in those cities, Roman suggested. Huge surges of immigrants filling those cities have contributed to lowering crime, he said. Immigrants move into blighted areas and create cohesive communities with low crime — contrary to stereotypes that such communities cause societal problems, he said.

"It's about racial and economic segregation," Roman said. "It's about immigration and gentrification."

Chicago, meanwhile, has made national headlines for its gang and youth violence, and last year had the most homicides of any U.S. city. But it also has a population of nearly 2.9 million, and its homicide rate is half that of Baltimore's. Chicago's homicide total this year is down more than 30 percent compared to 2012, and is headed for the lowest point since the 1960s.

Roseanna Ander, executive director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab, said Chicago's numbers are high but get extra attention because of the city's ties to the president, its high-profile mayor and the sheer number of victims.

"Certainly, if you live in many of these neighborhoods, they don't feel safe," Ander said. "But I think a lot of people conflated the largest number with the highest rate, and have been trying to untangle what that means. … It is troubling if people are being shot and being killed, but when you look at the same weekends the previous years, the numbers were the same or lower."

Ander said the city appears to have headed off a sustained increase in gun violence by broadening its approach to include funding for school-based programs for at-risk youth and a private-sector fundraising drive to expand other youth programs.

"If you rely only on the police to suppress and reduce crime, there are other unintended costs," she said, referring to policies that strain relations with the public.

By Wednesday, Rawlings-Blake was frank about the fear in neighborhoods, saying that she was "sad about the state of our communities" and that city residents were killing each other.

In interviews, Batts has given a wide array of reasons for the spike in killings. He has discussed gangs on Kenwood Avenue, where an 18-year-old girl was killed in a quintuple shooting; retaliation related to disputes at nightclubs; and problems spilling over from the city jail.

Batts has regularly mentioned the Black Guerrilla Family gang since arriving here from California in the fall, and has put the group at the center of some of this week's disputes as well. Police have made several arrests in recent crimes, though none of the past week's murders has resulted in arrests yet.

Wexler of the Police Executive Research Forum said days or weeks of flaring violence are not uncommon and police are proving to be better at focusing resources on preventing retaliatory shootings when outbursts happen.

Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League and mayor of New Orleans from 1994 to 2002, said Baltimore's crime is an economic problem that many cities struggle with. One in four residents in Baltimore lives under the poverty line, and the unemployment rate was 10 percent at the end of May.

A major factor is unemployment among youth and young adults, Morial said. "So when you take the illegal narcotics and trafficking in dope, and on top of that you have easy access to guns combined with high unemployment and very difficult economic conditions, it exacerbates the problem."

Joseph Pollini, a professor at the John Jay College, favors aggressive policing tactics like New York City's controversial stop-and-frisk policy. But he added that authorities must focus on community policing as well or face no cooperation from the public.

"Even law-abiding people are going to be against the police because they don't like their kids getting stopped all the time," he said.

At a special meeting of the City Council's public safety committee Wednesday night, several members said they would like to see police more involved with the community.

Pollini said other large cities have benefited from working in lock step with federal officials and building racketeering cases against gangs.

"Once [crime] starts to spike, it becomes more and more problematic," Pollini said. Crime rates have been falling since the 1990s in most cities, he said, and "inevitably it's going to come back up again. To what degree no one really knows, but Baltimore may be an indication of what's going on."

When crime rises, Pollini said, residents feel trapped in their homes and don't want to interact as much with their neighbors. "They're not out there marching in the streets, most of the time people are just apathetic to everything and lock themselves in the house."

The last year in which violent crime rose nationally was 2006, when the rate went up by 1.9 percent. Before that, from 1996 to 2005, violent crime had declined by 17.6 percent, according to F.B.I. figures.

When he experienced crime spikes as mayor in New Orleans, Morial said he made sure to find out what was driving the shootings and then communicated to residents what the problem was and how the city was responding.

"My long-held view is so much of what drives this violence is closely related to the drug trade, and confronting that is really, really difficult," he said. "The leaders have to be visible, they have to continue to be visible. It's not uncommon for there to be finger pointing because the level of frustration where these killings are occurring … . The community is in pain so the leaders have to do a combination of healing and leading."

Across notoriously apathetic Baltimore, outrage over the violence reached new levels.

On Friday evening, City Councilman Nick Mosby's weekly "Enough is Enough" rally drew about 200 people who walked through a West Side neighborhood to show a united front against the violence.

"We outnumber the bad guys," Mosby said.

The group, singing upbeat religious songs, began at North Avenue and Poplar Grove, near the spot where two men were fatally shot on Thursday. Many were not from the neighborhood, but had come with church groups.

"Somehow, because we are all together, I feel a sense of peace right now," said Catherine Mugweh, 44, of Abingdon. "We know we are being protected by God."

Residents said they were grateful for the outside support.

"It made me feel a little better," said Pearl Wilson, 33, who lives in the 1800 block of Gertrude Court. "I'm glad somebody's doing something."

Wilson tries to keep her nine children, ranging in age from 1 to 18, inside because of the recent violence.

"My kids, they're growing up in this. I'm scared for them, I'm scared for everybody," Wilson said. "I'm trying to get out of Baltimore."

Meanwhile, Munir Bahar, a 32-year-old East Baltimore resident, was organizing a march for next week to "publicly denounce violence in our city." He hopes to get 300 people to take part.

Bahar, who runs the COR fitness center, said his cousin was murdered in April and one of his young martial-arts students was shot recently.

"Folks are killing women," he said. "Folks killing kids. ... The police are doing their part. The city is doing its part. It's time for the community to step up. It's a state of emergency."

Baltimore Sun reporters Jean Marbella and Carrie Wells contributed to this article

jfenton@baltsun.com

jgeorge@baltsun.com

lbroadwater@baltsun.com

Recent homicides

June 29: unidentified victim, 200 S. Haven St.

June 28: unidentified victim, 900 Bennett Place

June 27: Gennie Shird, 3300 Elmora Ave.

June 27: Andre Cox, 2900 W. North Ave.

June 27: Corey Gibson, 2900 W. North Ave.

June 25: Terrell McLaurin, 2900 Gwynns Falls Parkway

June 25: Stanley Capers, 800 Whitmore Ave.

June 23: Maurice Taylor, 900 Bennett Place

June 23: Claude Nelson, 5200 St. Charles Ave.

June 22: Gervontae Burgess, 1400 Pennsylvania Ave.

June 22: Joyce Alston, 1400 Pennsylvania Ave.

June 22: Danquel Darden, 500 E. 26th St.

June 22: Omar Shorter, 5200 Cuthbert Ave.

June 22: Donyae Jones, 700 N. Kenwood Ave.

June 21: Andre Witherspoon, 900 Ducatel St.

June 20: Darrell Banks, 1600 Mountmor Court

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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