Amid a surge in killings, Mayor Catherine E. Pugh walked West Baltimore streets Tuesday morning — a procession of police commanders and city agency representatives in tow — to see first hand the work of her Violence Reduction Initiative.
The strategy floods targeted neighborhoods with services, with the aim of controlling crime. The mayor wanted to see how things were going and hear from residents she met along the way.
But she also had a few points of her own to make.
In a cramped convenience store on Pennsylvania Avenue, she peered into a booth where a cashier stood behind plexiglass.
“What time do you-all close?” the mayor asked the man behind the counter.
“11:30,” the cashier replied.
“Isn’t that late?” the mayor said. “That’s a little late. It keeps the crowds around here. Nine o’clock is nice. We need you-all to close at 9 o’clock at night.”
Asked about it after the mayor left, the man, who wouldn’t give his name, did not commit to closing the A&M Grocery any earlier.
The crime reduction strategy began in November, and the mayor has credited it with the decline in violence the city experienced in the first three months of 2018. But in April, the bloodshed has surged again, with 29 killings in the past three weeks.
Pugh acknowledged the uptick, which police say is largely driven by feuding gangs in West Baltimore. But she said her approach is nonetheless working.
“We’re on top of it,” Pugh, a Democrat, said. “We understand the intelligence. We know about the various gangs that are at war right now.
“Every situation is not always going to be rosy,” she added. “We expect it to improve, we expect it to get better, but we’re prepared to deal with whatever the situations are.”
The mayor’s office stresses that violence is down overall from where it was at the same point last year, even as the pace has quickened in recent weeks. For the year, homicides are down almost 14 percent and non-fatal shootings are down 21 percent, according to the latest police data.
But statistics are no balm for personal experience. Just ask Laverne Brown, a criminal clerk at the circuit court whom Pugh greeted on the steps of her Carey Street home. Brown said the violence — “at a peak now” — kept her in a job.
“It’s sad to say, but it’s the truth,” she added. “It’s a mess around here.”
The side streets were mostly empty in the area around Pennsylvania and North avenues, an area with a reputation for brazen drug dealing.
William Boston, who runs the Will B Better Bodies gym, said if the police accompanying the mayor had not been there, the scene on the street would have been very different.
“You’d see everything going on,” Boston said. “It’s an open-air drug market.”
Not that he was complaining. “They need to come and do this here every morning,” he said of the mayor and her entourage.
The agency meetings usually take place at police headquarters, but Tuesday was the sixth time officials have held them out in the community.
Led by Capt. John Webb, second in command at the Western police district, the city officials traveled in a pack around blocks bounded by Carey and Cumberland streets and Pennsylvania and North. They huddled in vacant lots and gathered around the front of businesses to update Pugh on their efforts and to take marching orders from the mayor.
Webb detailed how vacant lots had been cleaned of trash and abandoned vehicles, and how vacant houses had been boarded up. Then he flagged a recurring problem: After the boards go up, vandals tear them down.
Pugh summoned a housing official.
“The cost of boarding and boarding and boarding and boarding is something we really need to look at,” she said.
Annie Hall, the president of the Penn-North Community Association, said the vacant houses were being used to stash drugs. Pugh assured her that they would be demolished soon.
Hall, a retired Social Security Administration worker, said later that she’s been working with mayors since Martin O’Malley. The community has been promised a lot, only to see progress stall. But she said she’s optimistic that Pugh can make a difference.
“She knows the plight that we’ve gone through,” Hall said. “Hopefully — she gave me a her word — she’s going to bring about some change.”
In another store on Pennsylvania Avenue, Pugh called for someone from the health department and asked that the market’s next inspection be moved up.
Pugh is clearly aiming her sights at such small markets and corner stores, touting police data that shows crimes clustering around them.
“These stores on Pennsylvania Avenue and North Avenue need inspections,” the mayor said. “Health Department, I’m going to expect you to get in there and inspect those places because some of those places need to be shut down.
“How many mini markets do we need in one area?” she added. “How many carry-outs do we need in one area?”
Carol Maeng, who said she owned one of the stores the mayor visited, said crime was as big a problem for business owners as for everyone else in the neighborhood.
“People are scared to come into the store,” Maeng said. “We are scared, too.”
A few minutes after the mayor and her group departed, the police officers returned to the reality of working on North Avenue.
Five officers had stopped a man in the doorway of a check-cashing store and were patting him down. When a police van arrived to take him away, the man slipped free and sprinted down North Avenue.
He ran into traffic and down Carey Street, where officers finally brought him to the ground.
Police Commissioner Darryl De Sousa, who had been touring with the mayor, ambled up to see what was happening.
One of the officers showed De Sousa a black and white Puma bag recovered in the arrest. Inside, police said, was a handgun.