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Robberies increasing in Baltimore amid broader surge in violence

Robberies in Baltimore are at a five-year high, and fewer people are getting arrested

Jordan Black had just left work at the downtown Hilton hotel and was walking home to Camden Crossing late Wednesday, when he felt a hand grab him from behind.

"He grabbed my shirt and then turned me into his punch," the 25-year-old said, recalling the way the mugging began. "Two other guys jumped in and just whaled on me for a little bit, and I kind of went to the ground for defensive measures just to block. And that's when they started kicking."

A few months earlier, 26-year-old Ezra Winter experienced a similar, "well-rehearsed" robbery in Mount Vernon. "As soon as the guy was next to me, I knew what was going on, but they were good," he said. "The guy cornered me, and behind me were the other two."

Black and Winter were left black-eyed and battered.

Across Baltimore, similar incidents have been occurring with increasing frequency, according to city crime data — and fewer are being solved.

Even as a spike in killings has grabbed headlines, the number of robberies — taking someone's property through the use or threat of force — stands at what is at least a five-year high. Robbery clearance rates, meanwhile, are at a five-year low. By the end of July, the most recent data available, there were 2,411 street, commercial and residential robberies and carjackings, 400 more than in the comparable period last year.

And though killings have mainly been located in neighborhoods historically steeped in violence, the spate of robberies has hit a broader swath of the city — sparking concern in places such as downtown and Charles Village.

"Just because someone lives in a gated community doesn't mean they won't be affected by robberies," said University of Baltimore criminologist Jeffrey Ian Ross.

Not all city neighborhoods have seen an increase. In Washington Village-Pigtown, where Black lives, robberies through July are flat compared with the same period last year, at 26. But in Winter's neighborhood of Mount Vernon, they have increased to 31 from 15 last year.

As of the end of July, only the Southeastern District had a year-over-year decline, about 3.2 percent.

Detective Jeremy Silbert, a police spokesman, said several factors, including the civil unrest in April, have contributed to the increase in robberies, and police have "seen an increase of juveniles working in groups" to rob people on the street. "Barbershops and beauty salons have also been targeted over the past month."

Arrests are being made, Silbert said, including 75 "related to robberies and several other open warrants" over a 30-day period covering most of July. But overall, the department's year-to-date clearance rate for robberies, like its clearance rate for homicides, has declined.

As of Friday afternoon, the robbery clearance rate for 2015 stood at 12.7 percent, police said. Full-year robbery clearance rates ranged from 21.6 percent to 30.5 percent over the past five years.

Ross said it is not surprising that robberies have increased, considering that "many violent crimes are connected, especially robberies and homicides."

City statistics show that on average, street robberies make up about two-thirds of all robberies in Baltimore — and often involve guns.

Still, robbery and homicide trends do not always play out in the same ways or the same areas, he said. While a slew of factors affect homicide trends, robberies often occur where it is easy to carry them out and get away. That can sometimes mean nicer neighborhoods where police do not patrol as frequently.

"It's absolutely something that we've noticed," said Ericka Alston, director of business development at the Penn North Community Resource Center, a West Baltimore haven for children just blocks from the spot where Freddie Gray was arrested in April. The neighborhood has seen a year-over-year increase in robberies through July from 16 last year to 33 this year.

Gray died after suffering a severe spinal cord injury while in police custody. His death sparked protests that gave way to rioting, looting and arson on the day of his funeral, much of it in Penn North. Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby charged six officers in Gray's death — all have pleaded not guilty — and a sharp reduction in arrests followed as the police union said many officers were afraid to do their jobs for fear of being prosecuted.

Alston said the recent robberies are born of the same socioeconomic factors that the unrest helped to underscore.

"There are no jobs, and there are a lot of factors that are contributing to the desperation here. People are just snatching whatever they can and just running," she said. "They're stuck in this cycle and, yeah, they'll probably rob you."

Across from the community center is a playground, but the center doesn't use it because it has been taken over by drug dealers and others who target outsiders passing through, Alston said.

In the Glen neighborhood in Northwest Baltimore, where robberies through July rose from seven last year to 29 this year, or 314 percent, the community has experienced "a rash of armed robberies," some of early-morning commuters waiting for buses on Northern Parkway, said Derrick Lennon, chairman of the Public Safety Committee of the Glen Neighborhood Improvement Association.

Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership, said he was told by police recently that an increase in downtown robberies — up nearly 26 percent through July, from 86 last year to 108 this year — reflects the fact that "shopkeepers have been confronting the people with shoplifting" more frequently since the unrest. Such a confrontation would elevate the crime from a theft to a robbery, he said.

Howard Libit, a spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, said in a statement that the mayor's "emphasis on reducing violent crime is about more than homicides and shootings."

The mayor and interim Police Commissioner Kevin Davis have discussed robberies during strategy sessions and meetings with community members and business leaders, Libit said. They have "made it clear that together we need to focus on all types of violent crime, including robberies. This has been, and will continue to be, a major priority."

On Thursday night, about two dozen residents gathered in a small park in Abell in North Baltimore to hear about recent robberies from Charles Village Community Benefits District leaders and two police officers. In one incident, a neighborhood resident was forced at gunpoint to drive his assailant to an ATM and make a cash withdrawal.

There were five robberies in Abell through July last year and 12 in the comparable period this year.

Cassie Wicken said her roommate — the man forced to drive to the ATM — was rattled by the incident but recovering. The showing of support from the community has meant a lot, she said, but added that she hopes more will be done.

"It would be nice for there to be a bit more security," said Wicken, a 27-year-old Hopkins employee. Many university employees and students live in the neighborhood, she said, but campus security patrols generally stop short of it, making them feel "a bit more vulnerable being on the edge."

Lee James, who took over July 1 as Hopkins' new executive director for campus safety and security, said he is "committed to looking at and re-evaluating [patrols] as we move forward as a good neighbor." But he noted that Hopkins patrol officers are unarmed and rely on city officers from the Northern District to respond to violent crime.

Black lost his wallet, watch and electronic fitness monitor during the attack in the 200 block of Scott St. The robbers also took his backpack, but dropped it when a neighbor came out and yelled. Afterward, Black said he gathered himself, asked for water and tried to crack a joke "to be as not traumatized as possible" — but had one question on his mind.

Getting robbed was one thing, but why the beating?

"It is a good city and all, we love being here, but it is kind of upsetting," said his roommate, Steve Rogers.

Winter doesn't know what to think after being robbed in the 300 block of St. Paul St. and losing his iPhone.

He has lived in more dangerous neighborhoods and never had a problem, so maybe getting jumped was "karma," he said — as if his time had come. He doesn't condone his attackers' actions, but realizes that some people in Baltimore are dealing with a socioeconomic situation akin to living in "a Third World country."

Still, the experience has left its mark.

"I think I want to buy a rowhome and I'm not sure I want to do it in Baltimore," he said. "That incident certainly didn't help.

"I don't know that many people who have been here long who haven't been a victim of violence. So maybe I'm paying $300 a month less in rent [if I stay in Baltimore], but every few years I'm going to get the [expletive] kicked out of me."

krector@baltsun.com

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