Baltimore County Police Chief Melissa Hyatt speaks about gang activity
Baltimore County has experienced a 52% increase in homicides in the first 10 months of 2019, according to police data — with more than one-third of those killings occurring in two precincts on the county’s eastern side.
There have been 38 homicides in the county through Oct. 22, compared with 25 during the same period last year, according to county crime data. Even as homicides jumped, there’s only been one more non-fatal shooting than last year with police reporting 47 through Oct. 22, the latest data available from the county.
In eastern Baltimore County’s Dundalk and Essex precincts, 16 people have been killed in shootings so far this year, and 10 people have been killed in western Baltimore County’s Wilkins and Woodlawn precincts.
County and police department leaders didn’t offer an explanation for the trend. Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. said in an emailed statement that “the root causes of violence are complex, and there is no single solution."
“[Our] crime numbers are still very low relative to other major jurisdictions across the region and the country, so it’s an incredibly safe place to live and to work and to raise a family," Olszewski said, "but we are always looking for ways to turn those trends in a downward direction.”
Neighboring Anne Arundel County has recorded 12 homicides through Oct. 22 this year, police said, compared with a total of 23 homicides in all of 2018. Howard County’s police department said seven homicides have been recorded through Oct. 22, compared with one last year.
Baltimore City, meanwhile, recorded 277 homicides through Oct. 21, compared to 246 in the same period last year.
Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger acknowledged the increase, but said the percentages can be “a little misleading” and “a little skewed” because the county has fewer than 50 homicides. It takes time for his office to determine the motives behind each homicide, so he didn’t have an explanation for this year’s increase.
Historically, Shellenberger’s office often sees some trends in homicides, he said, such as domestic-related violence or killings related to “drug deals gone bad.”
“Many times in homicides in Baltimore County, the people know one another in some fashion, but they aren’t all pigeonholed into an exact way of looking at them,” he said.
County Police Chief Melissa R. Hyatt said they look for crime patterns among the county’s 10 police precincts.
Police spokesman Shawn Vinson said “any increase” in the county’s crime rate is similar to issues seen in nearby jurisdictions. The county also is involved in a new federal “strike force" comprised of law enforcement personnel across the region in an effort to target crime activity.
The purpose of such task forces is “to focus on the source of the crime, not just handling an issue within Baltimore County,” Vinson said.
Even so, the department didn’t say whether it’s discerned any trend in county homicides, nor did it offer an explanation for the increase.
Olszewski said county officials are tracking the trend to develop “innovative ways” to reduce fatal shootings. Part of their strategy is public safety community walks. County officials walk through neighborhoods with community leaders to identify “pressing public safety and quality of life issues" to show their commitment to problem solving by working with the community, county spokesman Sean Naron said.
The county’s first walk in Essex followed a July triple shooting over a drug deal that killed Cameron Stenhouse, 26, of Essex and Dennis Vasquez, 34, of Parkville. Olszewski credited the August arrest of suspect Corey Daniel Powell, 24, of Essex to the police department’s hard work.
Dundalk resident Scott Pappas, secretary for the county’s 7th District Civic Council, said maintaining a sense of security in your neighborhood can be difficult when someone is killed there — regardless of the motive behind it.
“Whether it’s being supported by statistics or not, the communities feel or at least perceive that there is an uptick in the violent crimes, particularly when you’re talking about the murders,” Pappas said.
Pappas said the police department has made an effort to keep the community informed, for example, by stressing that eastern Baltimore County homicides are not gang-related.
Olszewski and Democratic County Councilman Julian Jones Jr. of Woodstock participated in the county’s latest community walk in the western county suburb of Milford Mill earlier in October. In September, police found Al Taveius Webb, 36, lying fatally shot in the front yard of his Woodlawn home on Sept. 25.
Jones, who represents District 4 where Woodlawn and Milford Mill are located, called the trend “very troubling.” The county works hard daily to find ways to “drive people away from crime,” he said.
Olszewski included funds in this year’s budget for two new Police Athletic League centers. He also touted the county’s “historic investments” in education and said officials are looking at strategies to grow a youth summer employment program. The county also is looking toward “upstream interventions” to prevent violence and examining policing strategies to ensure their neighborhoods remain safe, he said.
Hyatt has said any one loss of life “is one too many," so the county doesn’t tolerate criminal activity, particularly gang activity. Every region has a “gang presence,” but the county has experienced only two gang-related killings since 2016, Hyatt said.
Police arrested 10 people for the July fatal stabbing of Daniel Alejandro Cuellar, 21, in Towson, and authorities say it was tied to the MS-13 gang. And, in 2016, an associate of the 500 L organization, which law enforcement officials said is affiliated with the Bloods gang, fatally stabbed 18-year-old Gerrod Greenwood in Dundalk. Wayne Zeigler was arrested and charged in the case.
County police have a unit devoted to busting gang activity, Hyatt said. The department also is considering technology that lets the public submit video evidence of a crime directly to the police. The department is focusing on school resource officer training, and comparing department equipment and databases with other agencies to see where it can strengthen Baltimore County’s capabilities.
“We will continue to make all investigative and enforcement efforts to remove people who are a threat to the county and to the neighborhoods because we want Baltimore County to be as safe as possible,” Hyatt said.