As Baltimore resumes record homicide pace, city leaders say they're focused on their crime strategy

Homicides in Baltimore returned to a record pace last month as the city recorded its highest-ever number of killings through September and two more men were gunned down Monday morning in separate incidents.

Through September, 266 people have been killed in the city, exceeding the 262 people killed during the same period in 1992, when the city had 100,000 more residents.

September ended with 31 homicides — more than one a day for the month and the fifth time this year that the city has had more than 30 people killed in a month. Between 2008 and 2014, the city never recorded 30 victims in a single month.

Baltimore’s leaders said they plan to stick with their earlier plan for tackling the violence, believing it will ultimately bring the homicide rate down.

Mayor Catherine Pugh said the strategy involves working with police to get more officers out on the streets in the short term and creating more educational and economic opportunities for city residents in the long term.

“With all of that, I believe that time will tell the story that Baltimore’s violence has been reduced,” Pugh said.

On Monday morning, crime scene technicians and detectives milled about a quiet street in West Baltimore, working the scene of the city’s latest homicide. The killing of a 24-year-old man happened just before 8:30 a.m. in the 1300 block of Myrtle Avenue in Upton, police said. The victim, whose name was not released, was taken to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead, police said.

They provided no suspect description or motive. The shooting appeared to have occurred in the street, with evidence markers placed at the foot of a Chevrolet Tahoe.

It was the second fatal shooting in less than a week in a two-block stretch of Myrtle Avenue; on Friday night, 39-year-old Anton Carter was shot dead in the 1100 block.

Earlier Monday, police said another 24-year-old man was fatally shot in North Baltimore, in the 3300 block of Westerwald Avenue in Waverly. Police said the victim was sitting when he was approached by two masked men armed with guns, who announced a robbery and shot him. He was pronounced dead at a local hospital.

Three people also were wounded in shootings between Sunday and Monday. At 10:08 p.m. Sunday in the 4500 block of Wakefield Road, a 35-year-old man and a 40-year-old woman were shot, sustaining injuries not considered life-threatening. Then at around 1:30 a.m. Monday, in the 1800 block of N. Montford Avenue, a 34-year-old man was shot multiple times.

Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said police have been analyzing the most recent homicides, which took place across the city, but “are not seeing a new trend or pattern” and do not believe the killings are related. Known motives in the crimes “run the gamut from a domestic dispute to a robbery, drug dispute, dispute over a dice game,” he said.

“Of course there is a plan in place and of course we're not shy in making necessary adjustments to it,” he said. “We are not satisfied in the outcomes, particularly the violence, the murders, the nonfatal shootings, the robberies.”

The pace of violence this year has consumed the attention of the city’s leaders. In the summer, Pugh and Davis promised policy changes to try to address the city’s violence.

In July, Davis assigned 150 officers to new District Action Teams designed to focus on the hardest-hit areas of the city and chase guns, gangs and drugs. In August, Pugh released a crime-fighting plan focused on getting more officers onto the streets and improving the training and technology available to police.

The level of violence also has attracted attention from Gov. Larry Hogan, who has sought ways the state can help Baltimore. A spokesman for Hogan said he remained committed to those efforts.

“As Governor Hogan has repeatedly made clear through both administrative directives and funding priorities, developing long-lasting solutions to Baltimore City's crime problem will require an all-hands-on-deck approach,” spokesman Doug Mayer said.

Officials have had both successes and setbacks as they have moved to implement new policies.

Davis reported that hiring of new officers was up, which should eventually lead to more police being available. But the City Council in July gutted a proposal to create a mandatory one-year jail sentence for people caught illegally carrying a gun — a change sought by the mayor and police.

Drew Vetter, the director of Pugh’s crime office, said the changes officials have started to put in place need to be given a chance to prove their worth.

“We do need to take the long view and stay focused,” he said. “Once you decide on a strategy, you have to stick to it and you have to give it the time it needs to become effective.”

But Councilman Brandon Scott said the record level of violence showed that the city needs to come up with more new ideas.

“I’ll say again, clearly what they're doing isn't working,” said Scott, the chairman of the council’s Public Safety Committee. “We all collectively as leaders in the city have to look at what we're doing and things have to change.”

As the police department wrestles with violence on the streets, it’s also on the verge of embarking on court-ordered civil rights reforms after federal investigators uncovered systemic problems. The federal judge handling the case is expected to formally appoint an independent monitoring team to oversee the process as soon as this week.

City officials say they think the required changes will improve the relationship between police and the community, making people more willing to report crimes and cooperate as witnesses.

Councilman Robert Stokes, whose district has experienced eight homicides in the past 30 days, said improving that relationship is important because, “the Freddie Gray thing is still fresh in people’s minds.”

Gray, who was 25, suffered a spine injury that proved fatal in the back of a police van in 2015. For many people, Gray’s death highlighted just how bad things were, Stokes said.

"There has to be an ongoing conversation with the police and the community,” he said. “If that's not happening, how do you build the trust?”

State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby said she has been working to show community members that her office can successfully prosecute criminals if she has their help. On Tuesday, Mosby said she plans to launch a transparency tool that had been tested in a single police district. It allows residents to track the progress of cases through court.

“Showing them the results and the importance of their contribution is important,” Mosby said. “I know it can be incredibly frustrating. I live in the heart of West Baltimore. I get it.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Kevin Rector contributed to this article.

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