Baltimore's homicide rate is down from 2015 — but up over every other year on record

Through Wednesday, 2016 has the second worst homicide rate in Baltimore history.

Two killings amid a rash of gunfire Tuesday and the reclassification of an older shooting as an additional homicide this week pushed the 2016 death toll in Baltimore to 310 — making this year the city's second deadliest on record on a per capita basis.

As of Wednesday, the annual homicide rate stood at 50 killings per 100,000 residents, second only to the record high rate of 55.2 killings per 100,000 residents in 2015, when 344 people were killed. That means that one out of every 2,000 people in Baltimore has been killed this year — a staggering pace that puts Baltimore, population about 620,000, among the deadliest cities not only in the country, but in the world.

And while homicides are down slightly compared to 2015, non-fatal shootings are up. As of Dec. 17, there had been a total of 899 shootings in the city — the exact same total as last year. Most of those killed have been young, black men, another similarity to 2015.

The situation in Baltimore has played prominently in national analyses of violent crime and its fluctuations over the past two years.

For example, the Brennan Center for Justice noted at the end of last year that Baltimore was one of three cities — along with Chicago and Washington D.C. — that accounted for more than half of the national increase in homicides in 2015. On Tuesday, the center released a new report on 2016 violence that again mentioned Baltimore prominently, this time noting the city's homicide rate is expected to decline by about 6 percent this year.

The daily reality for many in Baltimore is that killings are more common today than they ever have been, but for a few months in 2015. A couple years ago, having 30 homicides in a single month was rare. In the last five months, it's happened four times — and could happen again this month. There were 20 reported homicides in December as of Wednesday afternoon.

On Tuesday alone, gunfire erupting all across the city left 11 people shot, two fatally.

"We understand the angst amongst the public when you still see, obviously, too many murders occurring on the streets," said T.J. Smith, a police spokesman.

Late on Tuesday night, as the bloodspilling was underway, commanders from districts across the city were on a conference call trying to determine how to stop it, Smith said. The shootings appeared to be retaliatory — a deadly chain of events — and the commanders were analyzing intelligence from beat cops about crews on the move, trying to figure out where to station patrols to interrupt any additional violence that was being planned.

"The people who are committing these violent acts aren't strangers to the police," Smith said. "We know that we're focused on the right people. It's a matter of getting them in custody and keeping them in custody."

Smith said some guns were seized in the city on Tuesday, but declined to provide details or explain any connections with the violence. He also declined to say whether police had placed anyone they believed to be in danger in protective custody.

Smith noted that some major cities, such as Chicago, have seen their homicide rates continue to rise this year, after large spikes in 2015. That Baltimore has seen even a marginal decline is a good thing, he said.

"No one is happy about where [homicides] are, obviously, but we also couldn't expect things to just stop at the calendar year end — December 31, 2015 — with the historic spike that took place last year," Smith said. "We feel like we're working towards continuing to drive those numbers down even more. Every number has a name attached to it, and a family attached to it."

Lt. Gene Ryan, president of the local police union, said morale in the department is at "an all-time low," in part because patrol shifts aren't being fully staffed.

"Patrol is so far understaffed, not only is it dangerous for the officers — but if they can't protect themselves, how can they protect the citizens of Baltimore?" Ryan said.

Smith said there is "adequate staffing on the streets every day that the officers go out there," but that the department also remains "committed to bringing in as many officers as we can within the confines of the positions that are available."

The department currently has hundreds of open and frozen positions.

Smith said one good sign moving forward is that the community has begun to step up more often, providing tips to the police department about killings in their neighborhoods more often than they used to.

A tip line that police recently established specifically to receive text messages — 443-902-4824 — has been particularly successful, Smith said. He believes that is because "people are fed up" with the violence, he said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton contributed to this article.

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