Capital Gazette wins special Pulitzer Prize citation for coverage of newsroom shooting that killed five

Firm policing, fearless gang members clash

The Baltimore Sun

For months, police in the Southwestern District have focused on dangerous gangs, using aggressive tactics to engage suspected offenders displaying gang colors and signs.

And, police say, frustrated gang members and criminals seem to be pushing back. In six weeks, three officers have either been shot or shot at, including Tuesday's gun battle near a city school that left an officer and suspected gang member seriously wounded.

Yesterday around 9:30 a.m., blocks from a city school, more gunfire erupted, leaving a 15-year-old shot in the head, which forced authorities to lock down two schools, one of them for the second consecutive day.

Sterling Clifford, a city police spokesman, said that the increased enforcement in the Southwestern district is part of the department's citywide crackdown on violent offenders.

"Since July of last year, we've seen a spike in police-involved shootings," Clifford said. "It does go to the Police Department's decision to go after more armed criminals. Unfortunately this [firing at officers] seems to be the way they react. ... The incidents of the last couple days are not a complete surprise."

The strategy appears to be working. Slayings are down across the city, but they are up slightly over last year's numbers in the Southwestern District, according to police figures through April 12. Non-fatal shootings are down by 24 percent there.

"In that Poplar Grove corridor there is and has been some significant gang activity," Clifford said. "There are some pretty well-established sets there, some affiliated by Crips, some local gangs."

A Police Department commander, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the ongoing nature of the investigation, said gang violence in the Southwestern District is an "intense focus" right now.

The officers involved in Tuesday's gunbattle at Poplar Grove and W. Lanvale streets were looking for members of a specific gang when they spotted them in a car. "We were focusing on this certain gang and they appeared," the source said.

The officer who was shot, Mark T. Spila, recognized a gang member riding as a passenger in a car. The driver, whom police identified yesterday as Robert Campbell, 27, of the 4200 block of Crawford Ave. in Northwest Baltimore, made an illegal U-turn in front of the officers.

When Spila approached the passenger's side of the car, an occupant got out and got into a fight with Spila, police said. The suspect and Spila shot at each other and both were hit. Police have not identified the shooter.

While the wounded officer's partner tried to stop Spila's bleeding, the suspect retreated into his house nearby. Officers who arrived were met by gunfire.

Sgt. Clifton Macer, one of the officers who responded, recalled entering the house and standing at the bottom of the stairs when a shot was fired from above him.

"It was by the grace of God that he didn't hit me," Macer said.

Officers surrounded the house, and when the wounded suspect bolted out the back, he encountered gunfire from police.

A few blocks away, police said, Campbell tried to escape by carjacking a vehicle but was arrested. Police said he has been charged in connection with the carjacking.

Spila was in serious and stable condition at the Maryland Shock Trauma Center yesterday, an upgrade from critical condition on Monday night when he underwent surgery. Doctors have said a bullet shattered his right thigh bone.

The shooting suspect, who was shot multiple times in the upper body, was in critical condition at the same hospital yesterday, police said.

Yesterday, Detective Irvin C. Bradley of the homicide unit was in the neighborhood investigating and noted that suspects seem less fearful of police.

"They're welcoming a challenge or a gunbattle with the police," said Bradley, a 29-year veteran of the force.

"It used to be, 'It's the police, give up,' but now it's totally changed," Bradley said. "In all the police-involved shootings, they want to shoot it out with us. Guys are into gangs, rap music -- they believe that stuff. They glorify being in the gangs, being a thug, shooting it out with the police. It's their reputation."

This is something the Southwestern officers know well. On April 9, a man shot at a police officer at Poplar Grove Street and Westwood Avenue. The officer was not hit, but one suspect was wounded. Police have arrested two people. On March 8, an officer was shot in the leg at the 100 block of Palormo Ave. Nobody has been arrested.

Residents who live in the area were upset at what some said was a spike in violent crime. On West Mosher Street, within view of the school closed after yesterday's shooting, Earl Dorsey, 53, said students are "fighting out here every day when school lets out."

"You wait 'till 2:30 -- you'll see all hell break loose," Dorsey said, blaming the problem on opposing gangs -- not just Crips and Bloods, but others. He pointed to a "26" inside a star, drawn this past winter in what had been wet cement in the street.

"That's one of the gang symbols right there," said Dorsey, who works in the Baltimore Convention Center. "They're around all the time."

The motive was unclear in yesterday's shooting of the 15-year-old in the 900 block of Whitmore Ave. He is a student at Frederick Douglass High School and was in surgery yesterday afternoon at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

There was no word on arrests or charges. The victim's name has not been released.

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