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Police officials before council after violent start to 2014

Council members ask top brass what has changed amid rise in homicides

By Justin Fenton, The Baltimore Sun

8:33 PM EST, January 7, 2014

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Amid a bloody start to the New Year following a violent 2013, City Council members asked police leaders at a hearing Tuesday whether they've changed something for the worse.

"Baltimore has come too far to let the violence of years past return," said Councilman Brandon Scott, the vice chair of the public safety committee. He called last year a "failure" that citizens shared with police.

The first six days of 2014 saw eight homicides across the city. And while many other large cities saw continued reductions last year, Baltimore recorded 235 homicides, the highest number in four years. Nonfatal shootings also rose for the first time in six years.

Police brass who spoke at the meeting highlighted indictments and arrests that they say have removed from the streets those responsible for several strings of violence that rocked the city. They said they are better deploying foot patrol officers to ensure they aren't just "scarecrows," and said gun enforcement remains a priority.

Scott, who represents Northeast Baltimore, wanted to know what didn't work. "Clearly, we all did something wrong last year," he said to police officials.

Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts was sick and did not attend Tuesday's quarterly oversight hearing.

Col. Darryl D. DeSousa said police need to improve gang enforcement in order to drive down shootings. Police have increasingly spoken of gangs under Batts' tenure, with much of the talk centered on the Black Guerrilla Family.

"We have to do a better job of dismantling gangs," DeSousa said. "Last year we saw a lot of gun violence associated with BGF, Bloods, Crips. … We should have jumped on it a whole lot quicker."

Councilman James Kraft, however, said he wondered if the focus on gangs misses the mark. He referred to past Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld's emphasis on "bad guys with guns."

"When we focused on bad guys with guns, the murder rate went down. Now we're focused on gangs, and it's going up," said Kraft, who represents Southeast Baltimore.

Kraft also sharply criticized an initiative designed to free up resources in which some police reports are taken over the phone, saying it makes residents in his area feel that they are an afterthought to areas dealing with violence.

Police have heard the same complaints from Councilwoman Rikki Spector, who represents parts of Northwest Baltimore. She did not appear at Tuesday's meeting but told The Baltimore Sun she has heard from residents and citizen patrol groups that more people are complaining of police response times for break-ins, thefts and other property crime reports.

Public perception, she said, is that police are too busy battling more violent crimes in other parts of the district and are too overwhelmed or busy to deal with crimes that don't present an immediate threat of violence.

Lt. Eric Kowalczyk said police are no less thorough in their investigations of burglaries and property crimes, though he said police do prioritize emergency calls based on threat levels.

"Quality-of-life crimes and things like burglaries that affect people in the neighborhood are absolutely a priority for us," Kowalczyk said. "Any community in the city … we want to make sure our officers are serving the needs of the constituents."

A holiday, a driving snow and bitter cold have not stemmed a spate of shootings that started the year. A father and son were killed in the middle of the afternoon on New Year's Day, three men were killed during a snowstorm the next day, and two were killed as temperatures plunged Monday.

Baltimore did not see a fatal shooting for the first 11 days of 2013. That there were eight killings through Sunday in New York City, which has a population 12 times that of Baltimore, has drawn headlines there.

One of the latest Baltimore victims was identified Tuesday as Jonathan Terry, a 28-year-old killed near Lake Ashburton on Monday evening. A vehicle in which he had been traveling was found crashed into a tree on West Forest Park Avenue.

Another shooting killed an unidentified man on Pall Mall Road, near a brand new senior high-rise building that Councilwoman Sharon Green Middleton said is crucial to revitalization in the area. A ribbon-cutting is scheduled for the end of the month, and she said police need to establish a presence and move out drug dealers.

Deputy Commissioner John Skinner told council members that the double murder in Edmondson Village of Frank Turner, 48, and his son Anthony Turner, 21, whose funeral is Thursday, has police bracing for retaliation.

He said police were also focused on a recent non-fatal shooting of a "heavy player" that occurred in Northeast Baltimore, and said he was "very concerned" about the Northwestern District, in particular the Belvedere Avenue and Park Heights corridors.

But Skinner sought to assure council members that police are on top of the violence, weaving together several seemingly disparate strings of bloodshed and explaining how they were connected.

He said police had arrested most of the key players in an east side-west side war that had been touched off by a fight at a downtown nightclub and included a shooting that injured six and killed 15-year-old Deshaun Jones.

Skinner said a 23-year-old who he alleged was responsible for multiple incidents of violence around Gilmor Homes and North Avenue had been charged in a federal indictment in November, and said police separately "got creative" to bring charges against an alleged "gun for hire."

Both are charged in drug cases and not accused of violence, but face significant federal prison time if convicted.

West Baltimore was the hardest-hit district last year, and Skinner attributed some of problems to shifting organizational structure.

"We continue to try to hold the ground," Skinner said, adding that the lucrative drug trade in some areas makes that a challenge.

Baltimore Sun reporter Justin George contributed to this article.

jfenton@baltsun.com