A look inside the ATF's new NIBIN (National Integrated Ballistic Information Network) van, which will be used as a mobile ballistics analysis center. (Algerina Perna / Baltimore Sun)
Through the first four months of 2017, Baltimore has experienced its highest murder rate in recorded history — and now federal officials are sending in some help.
Mayor Catherine Pugh last week asked for more federal resources to combat the city's surge in shootings, robberies and carjackings. On Tuesday, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives plans to begin using a gun-tracing van in Baltimore to try to quickly solve gun crimes.
Daniel L. Board Jr., the ATF Baltimore Field Division special agent in charge, called the gun-tracing technology and the national database it connects to a "critical piece to solving and preventing gun violence in Baltimore."
Bond said the van will be "a tremendous asset to Baltimore by supporting a timely and comprehensive collection of firearm-related evidence at crime scenes, which in turn will help us reduce and prevent violent crime."
The network is used by law enforcement throughout the United States to generate leads in gun-related crimes. The van will be deployed in Baltimore starting this week and will be available throughout portions of the spring and summer, federal officials said.
City Councilman Brandon Scott, chairman of the council's Public Safety Committee, said he welcomed the federal resources.
"Every little bit helps," Scott said. "It's clear we have to do things differently. What we're doing currently isn't working. The strategy isn't working."
There have been 108 homicides so far this year; last weekend saw five people killed. The only year that saw more homicides at this point in the year was 1993, when 110 people had been killed through the end of April. The city went on to record 353 homicides that year, the most in the city's history.
Baltimore has about 110,000 fewer residents now than in 1993, making this year's murder rate the highest ever, per capita, through April.
Violent crime is up by 23 percent so far this year in Baltimore compared with last year. Homicides, shootings and robberies have all increased by double-digit percentages.
As crime has spiked, city officials have scrambled for solutions.
Pugh said last week she had requested additional federal help — both in manpower and equipment.
"We're grateful to the federal intervention in the city of Baltimore," Pugh said. "We are looking for all the help we can get. Murder is out of control. There are too many guns on the streets."
City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young made an appeal from the City Council floor to Baltimore residents, urging them to turn in family members who are committing homicides.
"They all know who's doing the killings, because some of them are their kids, their grandkids, their nieces, their nephews," Young said. "This 'stop snitching' culture in the city of Baltimore has to stop. ... You know if your son is driving an $85,000 car and he don't have a job and you didn't pay for it, that's a problem. I hold everyone accountable."
On Monday, police said they had solved three recent homicide cases, arresting one suspect and obtaining warrants for two others.
But business leaders and former mayors have said current city officials need to show more urgency in combating crime.
Former mayor and governor Martin O'Malley wrote in a recent blog post that "sadly, my own hometown of Baltimore chose to forget a lot of hard-earned lessons learned about crime reduction."
O'Malley was known for a data-based policing policy that resulted in high arrest rates. While homicides and other crime declined, the "zero tolerance" policy was blamed in a Department of Justice report for harming the relationship between the police and the community.
Former Mayor Sheila Dixon, who favored a strategy of "targeted enforcement" and who will be the special guest at a "Peace Day" rally this weekend in Baltimore, said she's open to discussing with Pugh how the Dixon administration successfully reduced crime.
"There's no accountability and there's no real plan," said Dixon, adding that Pugh inherited a surging crime problem from her predecessor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. "The breakdown in the past administration led us to this point."
Debra Keller-Greene, chair of the Greater Baltimore Black Chamber of Commerce, said she believes the crime surge is harming local businesses. She said community members, businesses and the government need to work together to reduce crime.
"We're doing our part of make sure people are getting hired locally and they see there are other alternatives to drugs and crime," she said. "Mayor Pugh deserves a chance. She's not been in office very long, but I know she is dedicated."
Donald C. Fry, president of the pro-business Greater Baltimore Committee, said the business community is "disappointed in the high homicide numbers."
But, he said, business leaders "have confidence the mayor and police commissioner are working to address the violence and are very focused and committed to ensuring that public safety is the No. 1 priority of city government."