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Baltimore police, city and community concerned over surge in violence

Baltimore has seen 34 murders in 30 days in a violent surge that concerns many.

Across from a CVS drugstore in West Baltimore that remains shuttered and charred from last month's riots, two high-top tennis shoes remained on the sidewalk Monday, surrounded by police detectives and crime tape.

It was the scene of the city's 164th nonfatal shooting this year.

While police and city officials deal with continued fallout from the death of Freddie Gray, they also are confronting escalating violence. Homicides are up nearly 40 percent compared with the same time last year, while nonfatal shootings are up 60 percent.

Most of the homicides have occurred in the Police Department's Western District, where Gray was arrested. The 25-year-old died a week later, on April 19, of injuries sustained while in police custody. His death sparked the rioting and weeks of protests and continues to reverberate as some criticize — and others defend — the decision to charge six officers in the case.

On Monday, minutes after reports of the shooting near CVS, two of the department's highest-ranking officers arrived at North and Pennsylvania avenues to look over the crime scene. Their presence underscored concern about the uptick in violence. Recent incidents have included five people wounded in an East Baltimore shooting Saturday and two homicides Sunday.

"This is equally as unacceptable to the people here as it is to us," said Deputy Commissioner Kevin Davis as customers popped into carryouts and basement shops around him.

"Definitely, some people in the community are just as frustrated," added Deputy Commissioner Dean Palmere.

As he spoke, a man rode by on his bike, calling out to police: "All day, every day, we will fight for Freddie Gray."

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said detectives are working to arrest suspects and that police "have to keep adjusting our tactics to stay ahead of the violent repeat offenders that are causing this violence."

"What we've seen over the past few weeks will not be tolerated," she said. "I want to assure the community that every available resource will be utilized to make our community safer."

Rawlings-Blake also downplayed concerns expressed by some Baltimore officers that members of the force are hesitant to make arrests after prosecutors brought charges in the Gray case, and that criminals might take advantage.

"People have said, 'Well, it's because morale is down,' or, 'It's because the officers were charged,'" Rawlings-Blake said of the violence. "We don't know that, and we have to follow the information that we're getting through those investigations, and that is what the Police Department is doing."

Meanwhile, the Baltimore chapter of the NAACP said Monday that the Baltimore police union's rhetoric against Rawlings-Blake and Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby has been "distasteful and disrespectful" and "borderline racist." In a letter to police union president Gene Ryan, the NAACP said that Baltimore needs to unite to fight the surging violence.

The police union has criticized Rawlings-Blake for poor leadership in recent weeks and Mosby for over-reaching in the charges she has filed. Prosecutors said officers refused Gray medical help multiple times, and charges range from misconduct in office to second-degree murder.

"It bothers us greatly to have the integrity of these strong African-American female leaders questioned by someone who has never served a day in elective office, and yet is pushing a personal agenda in the face of clear injustice, regardless of the possible irreparable harm it may have on our city in the long run — especially during this time of extreme peril in our city," the NAACP said in the letter.

Ryan did not return a call seeking comment.

The NAACP plans to launch a #BmoreCIVIL social media campaign and scheduled a "Stop the Violence 'By Any Means Necessary' rally" on Tuesday to coincide with the 90th birthday of late civil rights leader Malcolm X.

Munir Bahar, one of the founders of the 300 Men March, is calling for 30 men in 10 Baltimore neighborhoods to become block leaders in the crime fight. He said his group plans to train new volunteers and will hold an "Occupy Our Corners" anti-violence rally on Thursday.

"We always love to blame somebody else. It's always the police's fault. How is it the police's problem that 'Mike' kills 'Mike?'" Bahar said.

While he looked to residents for change, he said, city leaders are not exempt from the blame. The shootings, riots and protests have exposed the failures of elected leaders for not providing youth with the tools they need to succeed and escape a violent street life, Bahar said.

Police commanders said gang disputes may be driving some of the violence, especially on the city's west side. Palmere said he met with patrol commanders Monday to review strategies and that federal and other local law enforcement agencies are helping with investigations.

Davis said people are taking advantage of the turmoil following Gray's death to settle old scores.

"The most violent of any society will take moments like this to exact revenge, and it's our job to stop it," he said.

West Baltimore has been one of the city's most violent regions, but last year the number of killings were cut in half, to 21, compared with the previous year.

Rawlings-Blake attributed much of that success to Operation Ceasefire, an anti-violence initiative that began in 2014. The program monitors people with violent criminal records or the propensity for violence.

In recent weeks, Ceasefire has been operating without program manager Levar Michaels, who left for a new job, according to city officials. Kevin Harris, Rawlings-Blake's spokesman, said the program has been run since then by the Mayor's Office on Criminal Justice, and the city plans to hire a new program manager in two or three weeks.

A total of 20 people have been killed in the Western District this year.

"Ceasefire is a tool, we believe a very effective tool, in the crime fight, but crime is not static," Harris said. "For every new reform or new initiative you put in place, people doing violence, they adjust their tactics as well."

Among the 34 people killed in the past 30 days in Baltimore was Tahlil Yasin, 39, who was shot Thursday in the 2100 block of Edmondson Ave.

Nathan Thomas, 38, grew up with Yasin and said his cousin was funny and loyal but looked to the streets for opportunity.

"He was making a lot of bad decisions, he was living a lifestyle that was not conducive to positive growth," Thomas said. "He was caught up in the lifestyle I used to be caught up in years ago. I just made a conscious decision to stop taking from the community."

Thomas, who is helping to start a rental assistance program at Health Care for the Homeless, said the city's "lack of resources" and Yasin's lack of education limited Yasin's future.

But Thomas said that's not the city's only problem.

"It's a lack of respect for human life, and specifically, a lot of folk may not want to admit it, but for a lot of youths — a lot of black youths — they look at one another as the enemy," Thomas said. The violence "just shows to the majority of us that black lives don't matter."

Baltimore Sun reporter Kevin Rector contributed to this article.

jgeorge@baltsun.com

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