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Beleaguered city residents call for peace and solutions to Baltimore's surging crime

The anti-violence group Mothers Of Murdered Sons announce that they forgive the youth for their past transgressions. (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore Sun video)

As Baltimore nears 300 homicides for the third consecutive year, communities around the city mobilized Tuesday with calls for peace and pleas for solutions.

City Councilman Brandon Scott held a hastily called meeting of the public safety committee to discuss the administration's crime plan, but Mayor Catherine Pugh said her deputies would not participate because of the short notice coupled with the need to keep children and their families safe on Halloween.

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Across the city outrage over the killings abounded. A group of mothers whose sons and daughters have been killed spread a message of forgiveness, while other activists planned for the city's second "ceasefire" this weekend.

Will Hanna, president of the New Park Heights Community Development Corporation, said the killings are an epidemic that needs a new solution — an economic one that involves good-paying jobs. He was one of about a dozen members of the public who spoke at the hour-long hearing in council chambers.

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"You got to take the guys off the street and put some money in their pocket," Hanna said. "It's a street issue. You can't police that. You can't legislate that.

"Take the money out of drugs and replace it. Because if we don't replace it, we're going to have 300 murders every year."

Many of the speakers said they were disappointed in Pugh's decision not have the administration participate. Scott said police officials and other top mayoral deputies should be prepared to talk about the crime-fighting strategy at a moment's notice. The holiday should not have prevented top city officials from testifying.

One member of Pugh's administration from the Department of General Services sat in the audience but did not offer comment.

Edward Mazyck, a bail bondsman from Northeast Baltimore, called the mayor's decision "a slap in the face to the citizens of the community."

"There should be an outrage that no city agency with the exception of General Services is represented in this hearing, specifically the Police Department and parks and recreation," Mazyck said. "Councilman, I don't care if you called this meeting at 3:25. At 3:26, there should be police officers outside writing tickets for the traffic jam from people who are coming to participate in this hearing."

Mothers of Murdered Sons groups holds "Homicide Forgiveness" event to curb killings as city nears 300 homicides.

The mayor said the meeting was called with less than 24 hours notice. In addition to scheduling conflicts, Pugh said the police focus needed to be on the safety of children trick-or-treating.

"Violence reduction is the top priority of my Administration, and I am deeply concerned about the level of gun violence in our City," Pugh said in a statement. "With my support and direction, the Police Department and its law enforcement partners are strategically aligning their resources to slow the pace of gun violence."

She said with ample notice, her administration is "more than willing" to discuss its crime reduction plan in detail. She noted that the last time Scott called such a hearing in July, city agencies were dismissed without the opportunity for comment despite their extensive preparation.

The mayor said she has directed agencies to engage in "intense coordination" in a government-wide attempt to address crime.

"Citizens of Baltimore should expect nothing less," she said.

Councilman Zeke Cohen, a member of the public safety committee, said he was disappointed by the mayor's decision.

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"We heard a sense of urgency from our citizens that must be reflected throughout our city government," Cohen said after the meeting.

As of Tuesday afternoon, 297 people have been killed — the highest-ever number of killings record through October. That total exceeds the 294 people killed during the same period in 1993, when the city had 100,000 more residents.

This year, 31 people were killed in October, an average of one per day.

Before 2015, Baltimore hadn't broken 300 homicides in a year for decades. Last year, the city recorded 318 homicides, compared to 344 in 2015.

The latest killing occurred about 2:40 p.m. Tuesday in the 5300 block of Cordelia Ave., where officers found a 54-year-old man who has been shot. The victim was transported to an area hospital where he died from his injuries. The department did not release the man's name on Tuesday.

Earlier in the day, Mothers of Murdered Sons and Daughters United gathered at Pennsylvania and North avenues to offer forgiveness to those who have engaged in violence and to beg them to stop committing crimes.

Daphne Alston, whose son was killed in 2008, said she has led anti-violence marches, vigils and other events around Baltimore for the last decade, but said it's clear the old ways of addressing crime are not working.

"We're just tired of it every day," Alston said. "At some point, we have to put the guns down."

Without forgiveness, there cannot be healing, she said. "We don't want funerals anymore. We don't want this for any more of our children."

Alston was joined by women who have lost sons to violence as recently as two months ago, and one woman who lost her son 20 years ago. Others in attendance wore shirts with their children's picture, and spoke about life after losing a child. Several wept as they spoke.

Meanwhile, other advocates were calling for a community-led "ceasefire" from Friday through Sunday, the second this year. The last one in early August ended after 72 hours with two killings.

Erricka Bridgeford, one of the event's founders, told the council that ending Baltimore's violence will take "healing strategies," such as mental health treatment and conflict mediation, not actions that cause more stress.

"The neglect that people are feeling [is] caused by the decisions that we as a society — lawmakers, police, community members — made or failed to make," she said. "It is much harder to undo trauma than it is to make decisions that are going to build strong families and communities in the first place."

The homicides are not the only violence the city is grappling with.

The assault of a family visiting the Inner Harbor from New Jersey to celebrate a 14-year-old's birthday drew specific concern. Police said several juveniles assaulted the family about 8 p.m. Oct. 21 near the amphitheater.

An officer on patrol saw a group of male and female juveniles jumping on a man and kicking and punching him. When the officer approached the juveniles, they ran in different directions.

Medics responded and treated two of the victims for minor injuries. A woman in the family told police her cell phone was taken by one of the kids after it fell on the ground during the attack.

The Police Department redacted the victims' names in a police report.

Pugh said her administration's approach includes deploying teams of city workers outside of normal business hours, using housing inspectors and clean-up crews to target neighborhoods hurt by crime.

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"What I've said to folks is we've got to change the way government does business," Pugh said to council members at a working lunch Monday. "Everything doesn't happen from nine to five."

She released her first mayoral crime plan in August at the same time she named Drew Vetter, the former Police Department chief of staff, as the director of criminal justice to help coordinate a violence-reduction strategy.

Pugh said those steps built on the vision she laid out during her campaign and will enhance previous steps her administration has since since she took office in December, such as improving police technology and reassigning 150 officers to special squads in neighborhoods hardest hit by violence. She also has said she would actively seek all state and federal resources to capitalize on the city's investment.

She has said her crime-fighting strategy calls for a holistic approach by promoting community health, adding more jobs and giving more opportunities to youth, including making Baltimore City Community College free for city public school graduates.

Reporter Ian Duncan contributed to this article

ywenger@baltsun.com

twitter.com/yvonnewenger

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