Baltimore violence continues at torrid pace not seen since the 1990s

Baltimore tears toward 300 homicides for first time since 1999.

The mother let out an anguished scream as she reached the yellow tape surrounding Baltimore's latest homicide scene and crashed into the chest and outstretched arms of a police officer who braced to intercept her.

"My son! Where's my son?" she cried out, collapsing to the sidewalk at the rear of an elementary school and across the street from 10 evidence markers clustered around a small pool of blood.

As additional officers came to her side, the mother got back to her feet and broke away from them, running to nearby steps and gasping for air. She had learned that her 25-year-old son, Darryl Whitehead, was the victim, shot in the head in broad daylight. He had just gotten out of prison the night before, she said. He was the city's 288th homicide of 2015.

"I hate this [expletive] city," she sobbed. "I hate it. I hate it. I hate it!"

Such scenes have been playing out in recent months on Baltimore streets, in hospital waiting areas and homes on a daily basis. With 295 homicides as of Monday, the city likely will surpass 300 homicides this year for the first time since 1999.

"There is an idea somewhere out on the street that this amount of violence is perhaps an ideal or opportune time for someone with a score to settle to take advantage of this time and settle that score," said Police Commissioner Kevin Davis, appointed to lead the department in July after Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake fired his predecessor, Anthony W. Batts.

As of the end of October, homicides were up 55 percent citywide year over year, and nonfatal shootings were up 76 percent.

"We just kind of keep our heads down and go," said Dr. Thomas Scalea, physician-in-chief at Maryland Shock Trauma Center downtown, which takes the bulk of Baltimore patients with serious shooting injuries, along with Johns Hopkins Hospital on the east side.

Scalea's team makes what they call "great saves" — successful surgeries on patients who had been expected to die — on a regular basis, he said.

Still, they are struggling to cope with the deaths stacking up, he said.

"The opportunity to go tell some mom her kid's not coming home is right at the top of the list of bad things that I get to do," Scalea said. "To have to do that now more times this year is very, very, very discouraging.

"It takes a toll on the doctors, it takes a toll on the nurses, it takes a toll on the rest of the staff, it takes a toll on the chaplains and all of the people who try to help us through these things. And that is very real."

Police officials in other cities — Washington, Chicago, Milwaukee — are grappling with similar spikes in killings. But Baltimore is among a smaller subset of cities that stand out based on per-capita violence. And Baltimore faces a unique set of challenges — Freddie Gray's death from injuries sustained in police custody, and the rioting and civil unrest that followed.

At the end of 2011, Baltimore celebrated its first year since 1978 with fewer than 200 homicides. At this time last year and the year before that, city officials and residents were wondering if the count would fall below 200 killings once more. Even when the number of killings surpassed that mark, a year with 300 or more homicides still seemed like a thing of the past.

This year changed all that.

Following the April death of Gray — another 25-year-old West Baltimore man — violence spiked dramatically. There were 42 homicides in May and 45 in July — matching a monthly record last set in 1972 — and Baltimore reached 200 homicides in early August, a month that ended with 34 killings.

Now, months after summer's end, killings are still occurring at a pace well above normal. October saw 34 homicides.

In the Western District, which has seen a vastly disproportionate number of killings for its size, homicides were up 179 percent at the end of October compared to last year, and nonfatal shootings were up 112 percent.

"It's in the same neighborhoods time after time, and I can't imagine living under those circumstances. I can't imagine being a mama wondering when your kid goes out whether your kid's ever going to come back again," Scalea said. "That's got to be just awful."

The spike in violence hasn't been limited to killings. Citywide robberies were up 15 percent at the end of October — with business robberies up 125 percent, carjackings up 79 percent and street robberies up 14 percent, according to city data. Burglary was up 11 percent.

Police officials, elected leaders and academics all say the causes are varied. But much of it is familiar, if on a greater scale.

"There is no randomness associated with these murders," Davis said of the majority of this year's killings. "They're gang-related, they're retaliatory in nature, and they center around drug disputes. And unfortunately, where there are drugs, there's money; and where there is money, there are guns."

The Black Guerrilla Family gang is a major factor in the violence and a group that law enforcement officials — including those from federal agencies assigned to assist city local police — are trying to dismantle, Davis said.

Still, police are having a difficult time getting witnesses to come forward, despite the fact that many of this year's killings have occurred on public streets, he said.

After Whitehead was shot Wednesday afternoon, detectives arrived on the scene and saw a crowd of people gathered on the block.

"There were 20 dudes standing here when we got here. No one saw anything," said a veteran detective. "In 24 years I've never seen it like this."

Dana Davenport — Whitehead's 22-year-old friend who had run to the scene — peppered the detective with questions. Was the victim wearing a gray hoodie? Was he a light-skinned guy? Was his name Darryl?

When he realized Whitehead was the victim, Davenport pulled his black jacket back below his shoulders, the sleeves still tight on his forearms, and looked up at the sky, cursing his friend's fate.

"That was my man, my heart," Davenport said.

Davis said he is doing everything in his power to address the death toll. One of his latest initiatives has been to move all district-level detectives investigating nonfatal shootings into a centralized unit at police headquarters to increase information-sharing between them and the homicide unit.

He also pointed to the fact that the department is on pace to take more guns off the streets this year than last year, thanks to sharp increases in seizures since July.

Davis said it also would be "disingenuous" for him not to acknowledge the shifting atmosphere for police in America — what he calls the "YouTube Effect" and what others have called the "Ferguson Effect" or "Freddie Gray Effect" — as a factor in the violence that needs to be addressed.

In recent months, national law enforcement officials have suggested that the increased scrutiny — and filming — of police encounters following the police-involved deaths of young black men like Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Gray in Baltimore have caused officers to be more hesitant to do their jobs, creating room for criminals to operate.

Six police officers have been charged in Gray's arrest and death; all have pleaded not guilty.

"The crime fight is won by cops who make a decision to engage in discretionary police work. So it's stopping a person, stopping a vehicle based on reasonable suspicion and based on probable cause to check out what that person's doing," Davis said. "That's where the anxiety lies. Cops will still go lights and sirens to the sound of gunshots. We'll still run into burning buildings. We'll still get in the middle of a domestic dispute. We'll do all of those things. But it's that decision, whether it's 2 o'clock in the afternoon or 2 o'clock in the morning, if you see someone acting suspiciously, to engage that person."

He's looking to increase training to reassure officers, he said, and believes the department's newly launched body camera pilot program also will help.

Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, said there is no evidence of a "Ferguson Effect" playing out on a national scale. In many cities, homicides are up but other serious crime is not, and it's unclear how a "Ferguson Effect" would have that outcome, he said.

But the unrest in Baltimore following Gray's death was "clearly something that lit the fuse" here, he said.

"This 'Freddie Gray Effect,' when people talk about it in Baltimore, is a much broader phenomenon. It's when everything kind of came unglued in Baltimore, and we haven't put the pieces back together," he said. "Criminologists will really be zeroing in on this in the coming months and years, but it's going to take a while to sift through and particularize the data."

Lt. Kenneth Butler, president of the Vanguard Justice Society, an association for minority and women officers in Baltimore, said officers are still "working their butts off" but fear their actions will be judged unfairly in the current national atmosphere for law enforcement. Criminals sense that too, he said.

"Now they feel empowered and they feel as though 'I can do what I want without accountability, and if a police officer locks me up, all I have to do is go complain to his police department, to internal affairs,'" Butler said. "That's the effect of what is going on."

Davis said he is intent on dispelling any such belief on the streets and on "turning the ship around" in Baltimore.

"2015," he said, "needs to be an anomaly."

krector@baltsun.com

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