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Deadliest year in Baltimore history ends with 344 homicides

2015 was the deadliest year in Baltimore's history. What happened?

Blood was shed in Baltimore at an unprecedented pace in 2015, with mostly young, black men shot to death in a near-daily crush of violence.

On a per-capita basis, the year was the deadliest ever in the city. The year's tally of 344 homicides was second only to the record 353 in 1993, when Baltimore had about 100,000 more residents.

The killings were on pace with recent years in the early months of 2015 but skyrocketed after the unrest and rioting of late April. In five of the next eight months, killings topped 30 or 40 a month.

Nearly 90 percent of the year's homicides were the result of shootings, renewing calls for new gun laws. Counting nonfatal shootings, gun violence was up more than 75 percent compared to last year, with more than 900 people shot.

More than 90 percent of the homicide victims this year were boys or men, more than 90 percent were black, and more than half were between the ages of 18 and 30 — reflecting an urban reality that residents and civil rights activists say is devoid of legitimate job opportunities and caught up in the often-violent drug trade.

Many victims were gunned down in the street, often in broad daylight. Others were innocent bystanders struck by bullets fired indiscriminately into crowds. Nearly two dozen were children, many of them toddlers.

The violence continued despite several new police initiatives, including a partnership with federal authorities to investigate those behind the violence in the city's "War Room."

Under gray skies one recent afternoon, detectives and other police officers crowded a street corner in Northwest Baltimore. A 36-year-old black man named Dominick Kane had been gunned down at midday.

At least 22 evidence markers — labeled 1 through 17, A through E — stood around bullet casings in the street and on the sidewalk, just feet from two blue toddler swings hanging motionless in a playground.

Neighbors who heard the burst of gunfire said it sounded as if more than one person was firing. Five, then 10, then 15 shots rang out, they said.

"I was just waiting to see or hear a bullet come through the wall," said Stanley Singletary, 66, a retired truck driver who has lived in the neighborhood for 10 years. "Man, it's really crazy."

Regina Banks, 34, shook her head at the violence from her broad front porch next door, which she maintains as a "safe haven" and play space for her five children and their friends.

She doesn't want to send them across the street to the playground she described as covered with drug vials, used condoms and liquor bottles. Rather than children, she said, it attracts drunken men who fight over games of horseshoe.

"We're across from a playground. However, we had to make our own playground," Banks said. "I'm a mom. It's scary."

Banks and other residents joined city officials in expressing hope that things will turn around in the new year. But none were optimistic that a dramatic decrease in violence is imminent.

"The bad guys on December 31 aren't making a resolution to lose 10 pounds and read more books and shoot less people," said Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis. "It's more complicated than that."

Unrest a catalyst

One of the biggest law enforcement debates of 2015, at the national level, was whether the United States was experiencing a crime wave or violent crime was merely fluctuating amid a decades-long decline. Many cities saw increases in homicides, but nowhere near historic highs.

In Baltimore, there was no such debate. Among the 30 largest U.S. cities, Baltimore's crime spike was unparalleled.

Washington, for instance, saw a similar percentage increase in killings, but its total number of homicides was about half that of Baltimore despite the two cities being close in size, according to an analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law. The homicide count in Baltimore, with a population of about 620,000, instead matched that of New York City, a population of about 8.4 million.

Experts said there is no single cause for the surge in violence in Baltimore, and it may take criminologists years to identify all of the factors. But many agree that the spring's unrest was a catalyst.

Rioting, looting and arson broke out in April after 25-year-old Freddie Gray died of neck injuries suffered in police custody. Six Baltimore police officers have been charged in Gray's arrest and death, and they are scheduled to stand trial this year. All have pleaded not guilty.

Before the unrest, the city hadn't had a month of 30 or more homicides for 94 straight months, since June 2007.

"To have one event so dramatically increase the crime rate overnight? I've never seen that before," said Peter Moskos, a former Baltimore police officer and assistant professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. "It's unprecedented."

"The retaliatory violence has always existed in Baltimore," Davis said. "But why is it so pronounced after Freddie Gray? I'm not sure I have an answer to that, but it's something I think about daily."

Beyond the homicides and shootings, other crime also spiked. Robbery jumped 16 percent, burglary 11 percent, aggravated assault 6 percent and automobile theft 21 percent, according to year-over-year data through mid-December.

Pharmacies were looted during the unrest and prescription opioids hit the black market, which police have pointed to as a possible driver of crime. Drug markets also might have been disrupted by increased law enforcement presence after the unrest. Many believe a vicious cycle of killings and retaliation soon took hold.

Arrests plummeted immediately following the unrest, and some officers said they were afraid to do their jobs given the charges filed against their peers in Gray's death, according to the police union.

State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby called Baltimore the "home of witness intimidation," suggesting residents were too scared to assist police in tackling crime. Police have identified hundreds of shooting suspects but say they have struggled to pin charges on most without community tips.

Data show that the rate at which police cleared — or closed — homicide cases plummeted this year to about 30 percent, leaving killers on the street and further diminishing the public's confidence in law enforcement.

"People," Moskos said, "are literally getting away with murder."

Turning the tide

Davis said he hopes 2015 is viewed as an "asterisk year" in the future — more an outlier than the new normal. And to help turn the tide, he has a slew of plans.

The commissioner, appointed after his predecessor was fired by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake during the summer, wants to pressure the legislature to make possession of an illegal firearm a felony, and for police to track down gun traffickers.

He has initiated recruitment efforts to fill about 200 vacancies, even as the department braces for more retirements. He sent letters to retired officers to see if they want to come back. He also had letters sent to shooting suspects, to let them know police were onto them.

Davis also wants to increase patrols, to be more mindful about drug addiction, and to focus on residential burglaries. He wants to make the process for disciplining officers more efficient and to improve training. He has not hesitated to shake up his leadership team. And, he said, he wants to partner more often with outside agencies — housing, health, parole and probation — to find solutions to crime.

"The new way forward is to realize that good government makes for good public safety. I think that's the 21st-century way of thinking," Davis said. "We have to lock up bad guys — absolutely, positively. But we don't do that in a vacuum."

James Alan Fox, a criminology professor at Northeastern University, said crime trends normally follow the old rule of "what goes up must come down."

But what happened in Baltimore was not a single event to write off with an asterisk in future crime data, Fox said. Rather, it was a period of civil unrest that continues to reverberate and have impact. The crime rate won't drop, at least not sharply, until that impact is addressed, he said, by city officials and by residents who want to reclaim their neighborhoods.

"That's partially something that people have to take on themselves in their community. It's in their power," Fox said. "There is nothing that says the crime rate has to stay where it is now."

Tessa Hill-Aston, president of the Baltimore chapter of the NAACP, said the lack of jobs and the prevalence of drug addiction in Baltimore are to blame for the crime, and community leaders are working on solutions.

But there's also the anger she sees in city youth, and the departure from any sort of code on the streets for how disputes should be resolved. Without those codes, indiscriminate shootings and shootings over small arguments and minor debts have increased, she said.

"I hope that we have a much better 2016 in lots of ways, especially crime, especially black-on-black crime," she said. But the city also needs more drug treatment options, expungement programs for job seekers with criminal records, and training and apprenticeships for jobs, she said.

"It's not going to happen overnight," Hill-Aston said. "But if we start going in those different directions, it would make a difference for the next generation that is coming right behind this generation."

Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton contributed to this article.

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