TO OUR READERS
This is the first in a series of occasional articles that will assess the impact of crime in Baltimore on its residents, its suburban neighbors, its businesses and its culture. The articles, which will appear regularly through the end of the year; will examine the reasons for Baltimore's stubborn violence and explore possible solutions to this problem.
Number of people murdered in Baltimore since Jan. 1, as of 12:15a.m. today.
A teenager pistol-whips and shoots a light rail passenger in Westport. Young men on a drug corner in Barclay spark a gunfight with police. A motorist involved in a fender bender in Ten Hills tries to run over a patrolman, who opens fire in defense.
In one 48-hour stretch last weekend, gunshots echoed in three Baltimore neighborhoods, illustrating a surge in violence that threatens to reverse years of crime reduction credited with fueling the city's development boom.
Today, halfway through 2007, Baltimore has recorded 155 homicides, about a 15 percent increase over the first six months of 2006. That puts Baltimore on pace for the first time this decade to exceed 300 killings in a year - the macabre benchmark associated with a city besieged by crime in the 1990s.
Nonfatal shootings are up even more, rising 32 percent, to 352 so far this year.
"It just seems to be getting worse," said Anita Ann-Marie McDonald, 46, whose 18-year-old son was shot to death near his Belair-Edison home in March. "A very integral part of me has been taken away because of violence, and I don't see it getting better."
For a city preparing to elect new leaders Sept. 11, the violence dominates political debate. Critics of Mayor Sheila Dixon try to pin blame on the shift she has made from zero-tolerance arrest policies to targeted enforcement against the most violent offenders. But Dixon and other observers counter that the homicide increase has no single cause.
Baltimore's rapid approach toward 300 homicides frightens not only politicians but also the businesses and homeowners who bet billions on the city's turnaround, not to mention longtime residents who fear a return to worse days.
Although Baltimore's violent crime levels are far below what they were in the past decade, 2006 marked the first increase since 1999. It's an uptick mirrored in many cities.
Some criminologists fear that the current pace foretells a rising trend driven by gang violence, easy access to guns, a thriving drug market, a large ex-offender population, violent wayward youth and an economic downturn.
Making Baltimore's violence all the more stubborn are its pockets of extreme poverty filled with residents who often don't trust the criminal justice system and are fearful of being seen as informants in neighborhoods where witness intimidation is common.
Meanwhile, long waiting lists for employment and drug treatment leave few rehabilitation options for the thousands who return home to the city each year from prison, and Baltimore's youth struggle to stay productive amid a dearth of summer jobs and too few alternatives to the streets.
"This culture of violence ... is what sets Baltimore apart from some other areas," said Deputy Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III. "This is just not guys arguing over multi-kilo drug deals. It's not guys arguing over who is going to stand on what corner. They will shoot and kill each other over slights in a carryout store, or the lyrics in a rap song, or an argument over a girl."
Yet the outrage is hard to find almost anywhere in the city - whether in thriving neighborhoods isolated from violence or in communities immersed in it.
In January, when New Orleans faced an escalating number of murders, nearly 3,000 people marched on City Hall. That same month, Baltimore's NAACP held an anti-violence rally. Fifty people showed.
"Children are dying. People are getting shot. People shouldn't be accepting this. They should be outraged," said retired state Sen. Ralph M. Hughes, a criminal justice professor at Coppin State University.
Overall violent crime is down 11 percent this year, according to city police statistics, with decreases in aggravated assaults and robberies. But experts view such figures as a less reliable benchmark than the homicide count, considered the most accurate gauge of crime in a city. Criminologists say that in violent cities, many nonfatal crimes go unreported.
The increasing homicide rate touches nearly every aspect of Baltimore. "It affects the vitality and health of the entire city," said Jack Levine, director of the Brudnick Center on Conflict and Violence at Northeastern University in Boston. "It determines whether people will stay in the city; the way that people feel about their personal safety; the willingness of suburbanites to travel into the city; the willingness of companies to relocate within the city limits. It's not just a few neighborhoods. It's the entire area."
But even as the killings remain concentrated in pockets of East and West Baltimore, far from the glittering waterfront neighborhoods and the city's upscale and middle-class locales, fear is beginning to filter into the psyche of virtually all residents. "There is a sense of unease in many of the city's pre-eminent neighborhoods," said Anirban Basu, an economist and city school board member. "When people in these neighborhoods are affected by crime, violent or otherwise, it often leads to the disappearance of tax base, and that's something the city can ill afford.
"In some sense, we're right back to where we started," he added. "We're generating as many homicides as we did during the mid-1990s - with a smaller population."
Conditioned to crime
Baltimore has long been a place where residents and businesses are conditioned to the presence of crime, barely noticing the wailing sirens or imprints of RIP graffiti.
A web of security cameras - from the Police Department's flashing blue lights to surveillance outside businesses - blankets the city.
Museums and gyms offer patrons escorts to cars, and even churches and synagogues hire guards. Businesses outfit themselves with attached parking garages, ensuring that suburban employees can come to work each day without actually setting foot in the city.
In the 1990s the city experienced unprecedented levels of crime, with homicides annually jumping well past 300. The reversal started with the new century when now-Gov. Martin O'Malley was elected mayor. He pushed police to be more aggressive through a practice known as zero tolerance. Officers were encouraged to make arrests for such basic quality-of-life crimes as public drinking and loitering, though such charges were usually dismissed by prosecutors within a day. The city's homicide rate began a steady march downward.
Investments and development followed. Neighborhood gentrification picked up. People started moving back to the city, stabilizing decades of population loss.
In January, when O'Malley was inaugurated as governor, Dixon became mayor and brought in what she considers to be a more holistic approach to crime. She has encouraged police to try to rebuild community relationships, while targeting illegal guns and the city's most violent criminals.
Now that the city seems on the brink of slipping back, officials are worried. City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who represents parts of North Baltimore, calls it a crisis. Crime, she said, is the No. 1 issue. "I've had homicides in my district one right after another, which is unusual, and I'm extremely concerned," said Clarke. "You have to have safety in order to proceed with anything else."
Still, Clarke says, she doesn't believe that the city will regress to the climate of the 1990s. "I think we've maintained a lot of the gains," she said. "I think this is a phase. We can overcome this."
Dixon said she believes her approach will yield long-term results - particularly in stopping short of the 300-homicide threshold. "My hope is that we don't reach it," Dixon said. "It is significant in moving the city backward versus forward. We're at a point where we have every element, every ingredient to be a successful city."
For every homicide, there's the human cost, a life mourned by family and friends.
Disproportionately, the homicides exact their toll on Baltimore's young black men. So far this year, at least 15 murder victims were black men under age 18, and 58 others killed were black men between 18 and 25.
"My life is totally torn up because of this," said Deborah Wilson, whose 24-year-old son, George, was killed a few blocks from his home in Better Waverly on June 21. "Not only because it's my son, but because his life was touched by so many, and so many lives have been affected. I feel for all parents who have lost someone."
For Anita Ann-Marie McDonald, the pain came from the loss of her 18-year-old son, Christopher C. Clarke, a senior at Patterson High School who aspired to become a police officer.
Clarke was shot to death March 13. On June 2, McDonald attended what would have been her son's graduation, his empty chair draped with a cap and gown. "It was bittersweet," said McDonald, 46. "He's made me a very proud mother."
McDonald now worries about her 15-year-old daughter and 17-year-old son. "It's like I'm forced to keep them sheltered," she said. "I don't want to have to lose another child."
About 11 p.m. on a recent Friday, Dr. Thomas Scalea, physician-in-chief at the R Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center, got a call at home from a surgeon juggling a half-dozen shooting victims.
When he arrived, the trauma center's 13 treatment bays were full; some patients were doubled up.
"It was like a war zone," he said. "We were stretched to our capabilities."
Ted Miller, principal research scientist at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation in Calverton, has developed a model to estimate medical costs of crime victims. Using his model, Baltimore accounted for an estimated $12.4 million through June 16 - a rate that would amount to $25 million annually.
Using a different model, crime-related hospitalizations in Baltimore accounted for $38 million in 2006, according to the state Health Services Cost Review Commission, with more than half paid with taxpayer dollars.
Those in economic and business circles fear that even the perception of greater crime could hurt development.
"Everything is exploding all over the city. It looks great," said Edwin F. Hale Sr., chairman of both 1st Mariner Bank and the city's visitor's bureau. "But right over your shoulder, you have all this crime going on."
The city plays an essential role in shaping the region's reputation, said Basu, the economist. Whenever there are national stories about urban crime, Baltimore is frequently mentioned, he noted. "This has an effect of branding the region," Basu said. "The region has a stake in seeing Baltimore City address these issues."
Others involved in selling the city - from sports teams attracting free agents to colleges seeking new students to investors pushing development projects and real estate - say crime has not curtailed the boom.
"I've never spoken with anybody who gave crime a second thought," said Olive Waxter, director of Hippodrome Foundation, the nonprofit presenter of shows at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center on North Eutaw Street.
In May, the average city home sold three days faster than the average home in the entire Baltimore region, according to figures from the Rockville-based Metropolitan Regional Information Systems Inc.
"You can point to neighborhoods all around the city where five years ago, you almost couldn't sell a house," said Joseph T. "Jody" Landers III, executive vice president of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors.
C. William Struever, a developer, said though crime is less of an issue now, "that's not to diminish" the importance of dealing it. "There's great peril that I think we all face if we don't address the issues underlying crime," he said.
Two main causes
Police cite two main reasons for the spike in crime: gangs and guns.
While the vast majority of Baltimore gangs remain tight-knit local crews, many have been organizing under the banners of national criminal groups such as the Bloods and Crips, Bealefeld said.
School police have identified 33 gangs, including at least nine Bloods sets and three Crips sets, in the school system. Children as young as 12 years old have affiliated with gangs, school police officials say.
Police say the growth of gangs has encouraged more brazen violence over drug trade territory, initiation rites and colors. This spring, a top California Bloods gang member was convicted of killing a 19-year-old in West Baltimore who had not followed gang rules.
Yet convictions can be difficult to obtain. Residents fear drug dealers more than they fear police and prosecutors, so they seldom testify against criminals. Those picked for juries often distrust police, say judges, particularly when they or their relatives have been locked up in the past.
"The defendants are less and less afraid of the law. They are convinced that if they can get their case to a jury, they'll be found not guilty," said Circuit Judge John M. Glynn. "And that happens often enough to give credence to their view."
Stopping guns is paramount.
Most guns in Baltimore come from licensed stores. One gun shop, Bealefeld said, accounted for 60 handguns seized in 2007.
The city has arrested 60 people this year for murder, Bealefeld said, and nearly half had been previously arrested for prior gun offenses.
Gangs and guns are a combustible mix amid failed family structures: fathers in prison, mothers on drugs, teenagers having babies.
"We have grandparents who are 38 years old; a lot of them are under 50," said Quadre M. Washington, a vice president of Black Professional Men, a mentoring group. "Hopelessness can be passed through the generations."
When legitimate means of making money dry up, many in poor neighborhoods turn to the drug trade, experts say.
"It's not just people misbehaving," said Patricia Fernandez-Kelly, senior lecturer in sociology at Princeton University. "[Crime] is not a crazy response to conditions. It may be amoral, but it is explainable."
The escalating violence has forced police officers to defend themselves this year far more than last year. In the first six months of 2007, police have shot and killed six people and have discharged their weapons nine times. Over the same period last year, they killed one person and were involved in five nonfatal shootings.
"This violence has really hit home," said Paul M. Blair Jr., president of Baltimore's Fraternal Order of Police.
Solutions are hard to come by. But everyone agrees that education and employment are key - to keep young men from ending up in prison, and to assist them when they are released.
There are numerous youth programs in Baltimore, but many are small and constantly struggling to find money.
Levin, of Northeastern University, said the federal government has cut funding for such efforts to finance the "War on Terror." Boston, a city roughly Baltimore's size but with only 75 homicides last year, had 11,000 summer jobs for youth in the 1990s, compared with 3,000 in Baltimore, he said.
While parents, teachers and administrators hope to make schools sanctuaries amid the city's violence, students often don't see them that way. In a recent survey, a third of city students reported feeling unsafe in school, and a third reported feeling unsafe walking to and from school.
In April, a Calverton Middle School student was shot in the stomach walking by a park. In May, a Dunbar Middle School student was shot and critically wounded.
Another major problem is helping ex-convicts assimilate. Baltimore is home to more ex-offenders than any other jurisdiction in the state. A recent study by the Urban Institute of the Maryland Reentry Partnership Initiative found that its program "was successful in reducing criminal offending," but that it needs to be expanded.
For many, the crucial missing factor is jobs, especially the kind that once provided good pay without college degrees.
"There are no more Bethlehem Steels, no more Chevrolet manufacturing facilities," said Peter Angelos, Baltimore Orioles owner.
Several churches have begun to address the problem with urgency, organizing gun buybacks.
Citizens fight back
Many community groups are taking matters into their own hands, starting new Citizens on Patrol groups or beefing up existing ones. Groups such as the Guardian Angels have formed anew. Civic organizations are seeing renewed interest at meetings.
Such actions are especially pronounced in some of the city's Northeast neighborhoods, whose usual sense of serenity has been shattered this year. The increase in crime in Northeast Baltimore is unusual, said Bealefeld, of the Police Department. There have been 19 murders in the area in 2007, compared with eight at the same time last year. Shootings are up 53 percent.
Community action sometimes yields success. The HARBEL Community Organization in Northeast Baltimore fought against a Harford Road nightspot known as a catalyst for criminal activity, leading to the suspension of its liquor license.
Other residents just leave. A pharmacy student shot in the chest in Ridgely's Delight in March put her house up for sale. Her neighbor, Natalie Hall, 25, moved to her parents' home in Montgomery County and began commuting nearly two hours every day to and from her job at the Marriott Waterfront Hotel.
For others, crime helps make crucial decisions, such as whether to purchase a home.
In April, law school student Jason Shultz looked at an Ednor Gardens rowhouse he planned to buy. Some juveniles outside demanded that he and a friend give them their wallets and cell phones. When the men didn't fully comply, the boys began beating them until a neighbor yelled that the cops were coming. "You pull out the crime stats in that neighborhood, and I just didn't want to make that investment, which is a shame because it's a good neighborhood," said Shultz, 30.
While some can choose to move around within the city or outside it, others like 16-year-old Gregory Parks can only hope of having the same opportunity.
Drug dealing and crime are everyday occurrences in his West Baltimore neighborhood. Parks said he hopes his mentoring program through Black Professional Men will help pave his path to a college education and a career, his only real escape. For now, he educates himself on how to dodge the trouble that stands on every corner.
"I can't really avoid those places," he said. "But I know the quickest ways out, which alleys to run down and which ones to avoid."
The human cost of violence
Violence in Baltimore has torn through scores of families since the start of the year. Here are some of their stories. Reporting by Julie Turkewitz
THE INNOCENT BYSTANDER
After a stray bullet tore into Keonya Christian-Cannon on April 20 in West Baltimore, she spent a month in the hospital. Now, Keonya, 14, is living with relatives in Annapolis and plans to attend school in Bowie this fall. Meanwhile, her mother, Sheila D. Christian-Cannon, stays in the city to work and laments what has happened to her daughter:
"She can't go swimming because she has tubes in her stomach. I took her to the amusement park, but what can she do? Basically, she had to do what a toddler does and get on toddler rides. ... She's not happy, and this is something that she didn't cause."
Emily Fisher, a 29-year-old Johns Hopkins University graduate student, was robbed at gunpoint in Bolton Hill on May 17, the night of her bachelorette party:
"I guess it may have changed my outlook on staying in Baltimore for the long term. We just got married, and if we had kids some day, it made me rethink if we'd want to raise them in the city or not."
The Rev. Milton E. Williams lost a congregant, Barbara Griffin, 18, a member of his New Life Evangelical Baptist Church for more than 12 years. She was found dead in a courtyard at Bentalou Elementary School on June 11:
"It's more the sense of defeat that nothing we can do can stop the senseless killings and the senseless violence in Baltimore. The Police Department cannot give us the hope we need to stop this thing."
THE GREIVING MOTHER
Deborah Wilson's son, 24-year-old George Wilson, was shot and killed June 21 in Better Waverly when an occupant of a dark sedan fired into her son's car a few blocks from home. The 56-year resident is considering moving to Virginia:
"I can't deal with it. I've always been a strong person, but this - I can't deal with. My son's life was just sucked right out. ... To sit in the emergency room and not be able to hug your son and to tell your son 'I love you.' I said that to my son every day. I am so hurt. So hurt. Because he didn't deserve to die like this."
Rehka Thomas was shot in the chest May 7 when, expecting friends, she opened the door of her Ridgely's Delight home. She is moving to Tennessee with her husband.
"We're leaving. We put our house up for sale. Basically, if you can't feel safe in your home, where do you feel safe?"
Contributing to this article were Sun reporters Laura Barnhardt, Julie Bykowicz, Gadi Dechter, John Fritz, Nicole Fuller, Jamie Smith Hopkins, Chris Kaltenbach, Mary Carole McCauley, Glenn McNatt, Sara Neufeld, Bill Ordine, Jill Rosen, M. William Salganik, Gus G. Sentementes, Julie Turkewitz, Childs Walker and Jeff Zrebiec.