Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, making her most extensive comments on the wave of violence that has shaken the city, said Wednesday that she was “sad about the state of our community” and pleaded with residents to help detectives solve cases.
Rawlings-Blake struck an uncharacteristically frank tone at a City Hall news conference, while police said they were making progress on arrests and pledged to communicate better with the public.
Five people were shot Tuesday night, one fatally, and two more shootings were reported Wednesday — one in the morning, when a gunshot victim walked into Union Memorial hospital, and one in the evening, when a man was shot in the arm in the Poppleton neighborhood.
The incidents brought the total number shot since Friday to 29. Ten victims have died.
Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts said the department’s initial “messaging” about the shootings had been “terrible.” He said he had temporarily reassigned spokesman Anthony Guglielmi, who drew criticism for saying during the weekend violence that the city was generally satisfied with crime reductions.
Rawlings-Blake, who had given limited comments on the wave of shootings while out of town at a conference, lamented the “terrible display of ugly and senseless violence.”
“There’s a mix of emotions — it’s angry, it’s frustrated, it’s extreme sadness, particularly when we look at the fact that it's not outside invaders killing members of our community. It’s us killing us,” Rawlings-Blake said. “It sickens me that too many of our residents feel unsafe in our neighborhoods, even inside their own homes.”
At a special meeting Wednesday evening, members of the City Council’s public safety committee expressed skepticism about Batts’ approach of increasing patrol officers.
“We can't bring in the National Guard,” Councilwoman Rochelle “Rikki” Spector said. “We can't make this a war zone.”
Anthony McCarthy, a radio show host and political consultant who worked in Mayor Sheila Dixon’s administration, said city officials underestimated the public’s response to the crimes and need to do more than work on messaging.
“I think [the public] has been fed a steady diet of ‘declining violence, best it’s been in decades,’ and now we’ve been slapped in the face with reality,” McCarthy said. “Because we have this impression that the citizens of our city are apathetic about politics and policy and what’s going on, I think a lot of elected officials, including our mayor, believe you can just offer tepid reassurances that you’re on the case, and people are going to take it at face value.”
Homicides in Baltimore dropped to a three-decade low in 2011. But at 112 killings not halfway through 2013, they are now on track to increase for the second consecutive year.
Some recent incidents here have been particularly brazen. At 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, a group of men holding T-shirts over their faces opened fire on a man holding a baby in the 900 block of McCulloh Street, just off Martin Luther King Boulevard.
The man, who was hit by the gunfire, fled with the child in his arms to the University of Maryland Medical Center’s Midtown Campus. A woman was also struck in the incident.
Batts, who was named commissioner last fall, said he has “made it very clear to my staff, to our organization that we will respond and respond assertively.”
“You don't understand what my outrage is about these circumstances,” Batts said.
Maj. Dennis Smith, commander of the unit that investigates shootings, robberies and serious assaults, said detectives were working shooting cases nonstop.
In an unusual move, detectives are being added to foot patrols, which have been ordered to develop information in hot spots.
Smith said detectives have closed or are closing in on arrests in several cases. They arrested 23-year-old Ricky Fair of Baltimore Wednesday in a Friday afternoon shooting in the 1600 block of Smallwood Ave., and had two in custody for one of Tuesday’s shootings. Fair had no attorney listed in court records for this case.
Batts said he had moved Guglielmi, the department’s chief spokesman since December 2008, to an assignment in which he will work more closely with the community. Guglielmi, whose salary was $99,000 last year, is not a sworn officer.
Batts said the temporary move to the recently formed Community Partnership Division “will be good for him and good for us.” Guglielmi declined to comment.
Batts said the agency is responding to the violence, but had difficulty conveying it over the weekend. He told the public safety committee Wednesday he would start making his command staff available for media interviews.
“You’ve got to give confidence … that we know what’s going on,” Batts said. “We can’t be on every block. We’re not going to stop every issue that takes place, but we’re on top of it. We’re taking charge.”
Batts and his deputies said much of the shootings stemmed from gang turf wars and drug dealing. One fight at a nightclub a couple of weeks ago led to six shootings later, they said.
Some city council members took the spike in violence personally. Warren Branch, who chairs the public safety committee, lives about a block from the East Baltimore street where an 18-year-old woman was killed on Saturday.
Branch opened the meeting by saying he would have no patience for a “dog and pony show” with statistics showing crime was down.
Councilman James Kraft questioned the police department’s tactics.
After a spike in violence, police put on a show of force, but “where does that get us 90 days from now?” he asked. “It doesn’t get to the heart of the issue.”
Other council members praised the use of patrols.
“My residents have definitely noticed a change,” after a spike in homicides in the Western District led police to step up their presence, Councilman Nick Mosby said.
Tessa Hill-Aston, president of the Baltimore chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said police need to take the lead, but “all of us together have to be accountable for our neighborhoods.”
At McCulloh Homes, where the man carrying the baby was shot, residents said police would have to maintain a strong presence there to make a lasting difference.
The area was quiet Wednesday. Little girls combed the hair of mannequin heads on the front porch of one home while a landscaper trimmed trees around the homes’ paved courtyard and concrete benches. But neighbors were still shaken up by the chaos.
Sha’Naa Davis, 32, the mother of two girls and a boy, said she was at church with her children when the shooting started.
“That’s too close for comfort,” she said.
Davis said she wishes police would send more foot patrol officers into the low-rise complex to monitor the area and talk to residents.
“The only time they come through is when something is wrong,” she said. “And then, when they come, no one wants to participate.”
She said the mayor needs to walk through McCulloh Homes and other neighborhoods to bolster confidence in public safety. Rawlings-Blake walked through Downtown Baltimore this month in an effort to reassure visitors that that area was secure.
“She needs to be out in the community, showing us it’s safe,” Davis said.
Edith Green, 69, agreed.
Green, who said she has lived in McCulloh Homes for 15 years, also wants to see the police there more frequently. She said she’s seen officers walking around the complex just once this year.
“They’re waiting until something happens and that’s the worst to do,” she said. “I thought [Rawlings-Blake would] be better than that. Wait until somebody gets killed and then make yourself visible?”
Baltimore Sun reporter Carrie Wells contributed to this article.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun