Amid record violence, worried Baltimoreans see a city in crisis

After Keisha Peaks' boyfriend was shot to death on a street in Reservoir Hill, she tried to be honest with their 8-year-old son. But as he asked probing questions about the unsolved killing, she had a few of her own.

"Will it happen to my son?" she remembers thinking. And "when will it stop?"

Two years into a historic spike in Baltimore's violence, with 2017 on pace to be the city's deadliest year ever, those concerns are widespread.

The Baltimore Sun reached out last week to more than two dozen people who live and work here — community members, business executives, faith leaders, elected officials, police officers and others. Many said they see the city in crisis, with no clear path forward.

Some worry that a kind of fatigue has set in. With the failure of efforts to stem the killing, they fear the city is growing used to it.

Ericka Alston-Buck works with children at the Kids Safe Zone, the nonprofit she founded in Sandtown-Winchester in West Baltimore. She says children in the city are becoming inured to the gunfire.

"They are so numb. This is so normal. That is why it continues," she said. "You'll hear a 6-year-old say, 'So-and-so got shot.' That's normal. They'll hear gunshots and say, 'Someone's shooting,' but they're not ducking for cover. It's normal."

Baltimore suffered 146 homicides through May, a record. The death toll is up 32 percent over the same period last year, and nearly 85 percent over 2014. The city blew past the previous five-month high of 139 homicides in 1993.

In absolute numbers, Baltimore trailed only Chicago in homicides through May. Chicago had 240 – but it's five times larger than Baltimore. Per capita, Baltimore is deadlier.

City Councilman Brandon Scott says the Pugh administration needs a new plan. "Clearly, what they're doing isn't working," Scott said. "Clearly, there needs to be adjustments to the strategy both short-term and long-term. It needs to be a clear and concise plan with accountability measures, and I simply don't see that being in place right now."

Drew Greenblatt, president of Marlin Steel Wire Products in Southwest Baltimore, called the killing "out of control."

"It's unacceptable," he said. "It needs to be reversed, and it needs to happen ASAP."

Deirdre Gardner supervises a team of survivor advocates at Roberta's House, a nonprofit that offers trauma counseling to families who have lost loved ones to homicide.

"It's terrible and it's painful to know there are so many people suffering," Gardner said. "There's been discussion, and there can always be more discussion, but there needs to be more action.

"What are the next steps?"

The city's top law enforcement leaders — Mayor Catherine Pugh, Police Commissioner Kevin Davis and State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby — all say they are attacking the problem systematically, and that everyone, not just law enforcement, must be engaged in solving it.

They've trotted out a range of street-level crime-fighting initiatives, promised more patrol officers and closer collaboration with federal partners, launched programs to intervene in the lives of troubled kids, put resources toward targeting and convicting "violent repeat offenders."

They say the city's consent decree with the Department of Justice will bring more change, which will accelerate once a federal monitor is appointed and the ball starts rolling on reforms.

And they have spoken philosophically about the root causes of violence — poverty, substandard education and a lack of job opportunities — and how they want to address those issues as aggressively as the illegal guns and drug markets and gang beefs.

That's a departure from the tough-on-crime approach of their predecessors during past crime waves, and a reaction to the scrutiny now on policing in the United States after the death of Freddie Gray and others, most of them black men, in interactions with officers.

"In prior years, when you had big spikes in violence, people were not very bashful about doing fairly aggressive policing, the longer-term consequences be damned," said Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. But today's leaders know "that's not an option," he said, and are taking a more nuanced approach.

Pugh says Baltimore will "get it right" and "make our city safe."

Others aren't so sure.

Some say the city's leaders are doing their best in the new, politically charged environment after Gray's death in 2015 and the rioting that followed, the failed criminal charges against six police officers, the Justice Department investigation and the consent decree.

Others say city leaders need to do more immediately to stop the killing.

Still others say they're not sure city leaders would know how to deal with the violence even if they didn't have political constraints holding them back.

Lt. Gene Ryan, president of the city police union, said the rank-and-file officers he represents have been hounding him about the lack of a clear strategy in the Police Department and urging him to speak up about it.

Beyond the introduction of four "Transformation Zones" in the city, which pair policing resources with those from other city departments to support communities devastated by violence, he said, there is no overarching, well-articulated crime-fighting strategy that the officers can latch on to.

Officers want to do their jobs, he said, but they need direction — especially under the reforms mandated by the consent decree.

"The officers are being more cautious," Ryan said. "It's not that they're not doing their jobs, but they're looking for guidance and they're looking for support from their elected officials and the Police Department administration. They need support to do their jobs."

"This DOJ consent decree has created more confusion than it's actually solving. ... They're starving for guidance. They want to know, 'OK, DOJ says it's unconstitutional to do certain things? What do you want me to do?' What does this administration want them to do?"

Alston-Buck also wants more insight into the Police Department's strategy.

"The heightened fear and heightened hopelessness is unimaginable," Alston-Buck said. "Twelve hours a day I'm dealing with overdoses, shootouts, kids getting killed earlier, the teddy bears and the shrines on the poles."

Pugh and Davis have introduced some innovative ideas, Alston-Buck said, but she's not seeing the results in her hard-hit neighborhood. After all of the talk of change following Gray's death, she said, many are wondering: Does anyone care that the city's streets — at least those far from the tony towers of downtown — have turned into killing fields?

"It is kill or be killed, it is by any means necessary, it is people who are willing to risk it all with nothing to lose, it is broad daylight without any respect for children or elders," she said. "The little old lady who lives in the 1500 block of N. Carey Street is outraged. The working-class mom who lives in Gilmor Homes is outraged. But who's listening to them?"

The current spike dates to Gray's death and the riots of April 2015. Homicides immediately shot up — there were 344 in 2015, the city's deadliest year per capita, and 318 more last year. Now the city is on pace to set a new record this year not just per capita, but in absolute numbers.

Before 2015, Baltimore hadn't broken 300 homicides in a year for decades.

But it's not just homicides. Non-fatal shootings were up 8 percent through May 27 compared to last year. Robberies and burglaries were both up 17 percent. Aggravated assaults were up 23 percent. Carjackings were up 35 percent.

At the same time, arrests have dropped, continuing a years-long trend. There were 9,767 arrests through May 20, according to city data, down nearly 8 percent from 10,609 during the same period in 2016. During the same period in 2013, there were 16,559 arrests.

The Police Department did not make Davis available to comment for this article. Deputy Commissioner Dean Palmere said it is not true that the department lacks a clear strategy. "We are sticking with the strategy that we've used in the past," he said. "We've built upon that strategy. ... We are doing very strategic planning.

"Everyone's aware, it's not a surprise, that our resources are limited from where they were a few years ago, so we have to do more with less." The department has hundreds of fewer officers than it had several years ago.

Palmere mentioned the Transformation Zones, and using detectives in new ways to identify citywide robbery trends and patterns. He said homicides are up, yes, but the department has managed to slow the increase in non-fatal shootings.

The department's homicide clearance rate is at 56 percent for the year, 20 percent higher than it was this time last year, Palmere said, and its clearance rate on non-fatal shootings is up as well.

"One way to get in front of the violence is to be able to take killers off the street quickly," he said. "The things we've done in homicide to enhance our clearance rate doesn't have dividends overnight, but we'll see dividends over time."

He said he sees police officers doing great work across the city every day.

"They are approaching people," he said. "They are effecting arrests."

Mosby said her office is doing its job securing convictions, but is also working proactively to connect with kids and steer them in the right direction before they enter the criminal justice system.

She draws a distinction between nonviolent offenders and violent offenders. Prosecutors fight to secure prison sentences for violent offenders, she said, and are "asking the court for those individuals who elect to hurt people or commit violence to be held in custody."

She called the violence "completely unacceptable," and said it must be addressed holistically.

Pugh, who took office in December, said her administration inherited some problems, but she is optimistic conditions will improve as new partnerships and grant funding help leaders tackle violence and its root causes.

She said she has spearheaded meetings with Davis, Mosby and federal law enforcement partners, has launched an audit of police overtime aimed at freeing up that spending to combat violence, and is engaging all city agencies in the crime fight.

"We can't have an overinflated budget [for the] Police Department," she said. "We are going to look at best practices, and we are going to get the right people in the right places to make the right decisions."

She said she wants to put more officers in patrol as soon as they can be hired. She said she and the city's federal partners have confidence in Davis, in the consent decree process, and in the belief that Baltimore will turn the corner in the crime fight.

If the city is to thrive, it has to, she said. "Keeping people safe is important to our city in terms of its growth," she said. "We can't have people afraid to live in our city."

Pugh said cities across the country are dealing with a surge in violence. But academics who study urban crime say Baltimore is, in fact, in a league of its own.

Ames Grawert, counsel in the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, points out that upticks in homicides nationwide in recent years have been driven largely by spikes in a few large cities, such as Baltimore, Washington and Chicago.

"Baltimore is one of a few cities where crime actually is up significantly over 2014 levels," Grawert said. "That's not the trend overall. Even where crime is up, it's near or at all-time lows. It's cities such as Baltimore and Chicago that are the exception to that general trend."

The pace has made Pugh, Davis and Mosby easy targets for criticism — particularly from political opponents.

Former Mayor Sheila Dixon, who presided over a decline in crime but lost to Pugh in last year's Democratic primary for mayor, said she was "outraged" by the level of violence.

She said neither of her successors, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake or Pugh, followed through on her strategy of targeted enforcement on repeat violent offenders, backed up by intense scrutiny at data-driven CitiStat meetings.

"For me, it's really personal," Dixon said. "As a taxpayer and a citizen, it's really frustrating. I'm not saying my system was perfect, but we put talented people in positions to make inroads during a recession.

"Every day now, people are asking: What is the plan? ... I don't get the sense they have a handle on it. I'm not saying you have to have press conferences and yell. But I don't even see any emotion coming out of the administration."

Scott, who chairs the City Council's public safety committee, took aim at Pugh for not filling the mayor's Office of Criminal Justice, which in years past helped shape broad crime-fighting strategies. He said he plans to introduce a resolution on Monday calling for a "Comprehensive Gun Violence Reduction Strategy" based on a model out of New Orleans.

The Rev. Dr. Alvin C. Hathaway Jr., senior pastor at Union Baptist Church, said Pugh should tap the thousands of city employees, including from the school system, who should be mobilized into a force for change.

"I don't see it getting better unless we intervene," he said. "The interventions have to be holistic interventions, not just public-relations efforts. We have to have a real change of mindset from those who work in bureaucracy, from those who work in institutions, from those who find themselves leading in those places."

But others have not spoken out. Ryan, the police union president, finds the silence troubling.

"Somebody should be concerned with all these bodies dropping on a regular basis," he said. "Somebody should stand up and say, 'What are we doing about the spike in crime and all of these murders?' I mean, if it keeps going the way it's going, we might break 400. That's scary.

"The elected officials aren't supporting the police officers. The administration isn't supporting the police officers. The residents of Baltimore City aren't being vocal."

Others are more circumspect.

Tony Foreman is a partner in Foreman Wolf Restaurant Group, which owns high-end restaurants including Charleston, Bar Vasquez, Cinghiale and Petit Louis Bistro. He said the city is stuck in a "broken-record cycle.

It is "disconcerting that the city ... over time has not been able to change the path of so many people who become those violent offenders," he said.

"It's motivated policing that is the most successful," he said. "Tactics don't matter if there's no motivation."

Restaurateur Alan Hirsch owns Donna's and manages Cosima. He called the pace of killing "awful and discouraging," and said it's further dividing the affluent from the poor.

"I think the reality is that most generally upper-middle-class people in Baltimore are somewhat insulated from the problems, but it's very disheartening as someone who's lived in Baltimore my entire life," he said. "People are expressing more discouragement that the city can't progress beyond that, and that there really are two Baltimores. And nobody wants that."

He said he doesn't know that Pugh has "had that much of a chance to make her mark," but whatever approach the Police Department is taking "doesn't seem to be working."

"It's a very difficult problem," he said. "I would be the last to point fingers because I understand how difficult the problem is. I don't have any solutions."

Bishop Denis J. Madden, urban vicar of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, holds regular prayer walks in places where people have been killed.

Madden, a clinical psychologist, said the effects of the violence are being felt "all around, especially in the parishes in the city. It's affecting people. It's almost — the feeling has developed that if you live in certain areas, you're just not going to be safe, you're going to be at risk.

"People lose a sense of hope that things can be different," Madden said. "A big thing for people is hope. I think the mayor is really trying to get a handle on this [violence]. I think that in itself gives hope. It's not just something on the back burner."

Bishop Eugene Taylor Sutton, head of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, is one of three conveners of Bishops United Against Gun Violence, a national movement within the Episcopal Church.

He said he is not surprised by the violence, but is disappointed and saddened. He called violence a "virus" that you can catch like a cold, and said it must be treated as one, by addressing the underlying causes of poverty, racism and the "prevalence of tools of violence" like guns.

"How to pull that off is a question for the mayor," he said. "But we need jobs, jobs, jobs."

Morgan State University President David Wilson said he is "encouraged" to work with Pugh and the police on making his university campus safe. He praised the mayor.

"I really applaud her for listening and understanding the importance of community policing and attacking the tremendous drug problem that we have in our city, and the absolute importance of providing opportunities for employment," he said. "From what I'm seeing, Mayor Pugh has a comprehensive approach to try and combat crime in Baltimore City. ...

"Baltimore City did not enter into the situation overnight, and we're not going to get out of the situation overnight."

Neither the president of Johns Hopkins University, Ronald Daniels, nor the president of Johns Hopkins Hospital, Redonda Miller, would be interviewed for this article. The university issued a statement saying Pugh has "a strong team" and that "responding to the rise in crime is their highest priority."

Greenblatt, president of Marlin Steel Wire Products, worries that the violence is making it more difficult to attract employees and customers.

"We have to attract amazing talent because we're competing with China, we're competing with Mexico," Greenblatt said. "The only way we win is by having amazing talent.

"We're in the city, and if they don't want to drive into the city because they're fearful of the bedlam that's occurring, we'll lose good talent and won't be able to grow and satisfy client demand."

New customers often visit the factory to place orders, he said, and some have expressed concerns about their safety coming into the city, making it harder to close deals. He's also concerned about the health of his factory workers, most of whom live in the city.

Following the riots," he said, "somebody is transmitting a signal to the Police Department or guys on the beat telling them they're supposed to police differently, and it's having a negative impact, and people are dying."

Gardner, the counseling supervisor, said Roberta's House used to reach out to the families of every homicide victim in the city, but now there are just too many. The organization still provides services to anyone from the city who asks, but only calls the families of those killed in East and West Baltimore.

"What are we going to do for people who are emotionally hurting or depressed?" she asked. "Are there resources to put to it?"

Peaks, who is still working with her son to process his father's killing, said everyone should be concerned about the violence, whether they think it affects them or not.

"Just because it hasn't happened to you doesn't mean it won't happen to you tomorrow," she said. "Nobody goes to sleep planning this will happen."

Baltimore Sun reporters Luke Broadwater, Sarah Meehan, Jonathan Pitts and Tim Prudente contributed to this article.

krector@baltsun.com

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