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Is 300 homicides in Baltimore the 'new normal'?

Three years ago, city police placed steel barricades and a 24-hour command center at the entrance to the 900 block of Bennett Place in West Baltimore. They acted after three men were killed there in a span of several months.

On the same block this week, three people were shot to death in one night. Yet no gates, mobile command center or round-the-clock protection detail followed.

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Police say the absence of such measures doesn't signal any less urgency. But what is clear is that police are busier now than they were in 2013, when 235 people were killed in the city.

This year, Baltimore is fast approaching 300 homicides for the second straight year, and for only the second time since the 1990s. There were 299 homicides in the city as of Saturday.

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"This s— — is crazy. It never stops," said Rico Sterling, who lives on Bennett Place. "It's horrible. People are crazy, cruel, cold-hearted."

A year and a half after homicides started spiking dramatically in the turbulent weeks that followed the arrest and death of Freddie Gray, residents continue to struggle with relentless violence.

Are 300 homicides a year Baltimore's new normal?

"I hope not," longtime City Councilwoman Sharon Green Middleton said.

But she noted that it will take more than police to curb crime, calling on neighborhood associations and crime-watch groups to help.

"We all have to be connected because some serious problems are happening," she said.

Some say weakened relationships between police and the community are a major factor behind the sustained crime wave — relationships that may take years to significantly strengthen.

"The reasonable expectation is 2017 is going to look like 2016," said Stephen L. Morgan, professor of sociology and education at the Johns Hopkins University. "It's a very substantial challenge for the community and the police."

Morgan studied Baltimore's crime levels over the past two years and focused on whether high-profile deaths of unarmed black men in police interactions correlated with rises in violent crime. He looked at what effect the 2014 fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., had on Baltimore's crime levels and watched for fluctuations after Gray's death in April 2015.

He found that homicides were up 40 percent and shootings up 90 percent when comparing a 12-month period starting in the fall of 2015 to a similar period before the events in Ferguson. Street robbery, commercial robbery and aggravated assault were all up more than 27 percent in each category. Carjacking was up 213 percent.

When people lose trust in police, they are less likely to report crimes, call in tips or act as witnesses. That emboldens robbers and shooters to become "opportunistic," Morgan said.

"The breakdown in the relationship between the community and police has the police a bit on their heels, and it may be that some individuals are taking advantage of that," he said.

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A Baltimore Sun investigation this year found that fewer people survive shootings in Baltimore compared with other major U.S. cities except Washington and New Orleans. Last year, one person died out of every three people shot. The rate remains nearly as deadly this year.

Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis took issue with the suggestion that community relations could be to blame for the spike. He pointed to incidents in recent days where two men tackled carjackers of a city councilwoman, where store owners and residents tried to trap a fatal stabbing suspect in a store until police arrived, and tipsters led investigators to a person of interest in the shooting of six people in Northwest Baltimore.

Other cities, including Atlanta, Dallas, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Boston, have seen homicides surge this year, which Davis said reflects a national trend. A federal civil rights investigation has forced Baltimore police to rethink tactics, and Davis acknowledged that more work remains to improve community relations.

Davis has pointed to the easy access to illegal guns as a problem. Although police have seized more guns annually each year over the past two years, there has not been a decrease in shootings.

"The notion that the violence that really surged following the unrest was going to come to a screeching halt or was going to go back" was not "an idea that would play out in reality," Davis said.

Deputy Commissioner Dean Palmere said the department is focused on intelligence gathering and gun seizures. Nearly 100 people have been indicted since July, police said.

They see progress. But residents in a half-mile area of Northwest Baltimore do not. Three shootings there have left five dead since Nov. 15.

R. Johnson, who owns the Right Cut barbershop in the area, said he has heard Davis lobby for stricter gun laws to help fight the crime.

"They're talking about stiffening up gun laws? For what? Right now everyone needs to carry a gun," Johnson said. "That's how bad it's gotten."

The elevated crime levels worry first-year council members John Bullock, who represents parts of West Baltimore, and Zeke Cohen, who serves Southeast Baltimore. Both said they want to see police on foot patrol more, interacting with residents. But they also pointed to socioeconomic reasons for Baltimore's crime woes.

"I think 300 murders per year is completely unacceptable and our citizens deserve much better," Cohen said. "We need to see a real, true commitment to community-based policing."

Located in the Harlem Park neighborhood, the 900 block of Bennett Place has seen slow progress over the last three years. Though it is still lined with several vacant homes, investors have been rehabilitating more of them in recent years.

Residents point to cars parked on the block with Pennsylvania plates that they said belong to contractors. Ben Saidi is the maintenance man for nine units, which were fixed up about a year ago. Saidi moved up from Washington a couple of months ago for the job, and in just that time he has felt Baltimore's crime problems close up.

Walking on Fayette Street, he came upon a group of men arguing loudly. As he drew near, he saw that the commotion was meant to lure him. The men hit Saidi in the head and bashed in his nose with the butt of a large knife. Blood gushed and his nose was broken in two places. The robbers stole his cellphone, wallet and backpack before police caught them.

"I could have been dead," he said. "I'm not planning to live here, to be honest. I like D.C. It's kind of rough here."

Saidi stood outside the Bennett Place rowhouse where Antonio Davis, 23; Howard Banks, 45; and Thomas Carter, 42, were found shot to death last Sunday. Neighbors said the house was frequented by transients. It is not the last known address for any of the victims. Police say the house was a gang hangout, and that the victims had links to the Black Guerrilla Family.

"This is not a place for family, not a place for kids," Saidi said. "A lot of people move in here, and move out."

Across the street, Cornell Bailey stood on his front steps and recalled a victim who used to yell hello from an upstairs window. Bailey has lived on Bennett Place for more than a decade and has watched the block go from a street with tight neighbors and July Fourth block parties to a constant crime scene.

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"One guy got killed right there, one guy got killed right there, one guy killed right there," Bailey said pointing all around.

He supported the recent renovations on the block, but said no one can afford $1,000-a-month rents. So temporary tenants, vagrants and criminals move in.

"Nobody stays long," Bailey said.

While the three victims on the block were found Sunday afternoon, police say they were shot about 3 a.m. Residents called police after they heard gunshots but officers arrived and found nothing.

As people awoke, many on the block heard rumors that bodies were inside the rowhouse. It took hours before someone called the Fire Department to check on the house, which led to the grisly discovery.

No one called police, Bailey said, because "no one wants to get involved."

Twitter.com/justingeorge

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