The grim benchmark has been arriving each year around this time, landing in Baltimore as the weather turns colder and the holiday season approaches. For the sixth straight year, Baltimore is on pace to record at least 300 homicides, leaving the city’s political, civic and law enforcement leaders again searching for ways to reduce the rate of violence, which not even a pandemic could stop.
As of late Friday, Baltimore had recorded 295 homicides, a rate of just under a homicide per day with about 40 days left in 2020.
The pace of homicides is slightly improved over last year but still far higher than the city routinely recorded a decade ago. Nonfatal shootings are also down from last year, according to police statistics, part of an overall drop in crime in most categories.
Among the dead: Shiand Miller, 23, and her unborn son were found shot to death in June in a parked car in Southwest Baltimore. A couple of weeks earlier, Ala’junaye Davis, a ninth grade honors student at the National Academy Foundation High School, was shot and killed. In October, Jaheem Atkins, 16, became the fifth teenager to be fatally shot in a two-week span.
Baltimore City Council President and Mayor-elect Brandon Scott said the city has neglected underlying problems affecting crime rates for years. He said his goal is to expand city services outside law enforcement, whether it be offering more comprehensive services to inmates leaving prisons or implementing a strategy to address neighborhood confrontations before they become violent.
“There isn’t one cause, and there isn’t one solution,” Scott said. “We’re talking about a complete re-imagining of public safety.”
There have been some bright spots, police said, pointing to an increase in arrests and the rate of solving homicides and shootings.
As of Thursday, 115 people have been arrested on homicide charges and 130 for nonfatal shootings, according to Baltimore police spokesperson Lindsey Eldridge. During the same period last year, the department had made 104 homicide arrests, she added.
She said the department has a 41% clearance rate, up from 32% last year; both are lower than the national average of 57%, according to FBI statistics.
The department, which has trumpeted an increase in the number of detectives this year, says homicides are down 4% and nonfatal shootings are down 7% over 2019.
The modest improvement doesn’t alleviate the overall need for a change in strategy, local leaders said.
Councilman Zeke Cohen joined Scott in calling for a more comprehensive approach to preventing crime. The District 1 councilman said he’s been encouraged by Scott’s previous efforts to address the city’s existing problems while pressing for the city to “truly adapt a trauma-responsive approach to government.”
“We remain one of the most deeply inequitable cities in the country and, as a result, we have communities, particularly Black and brown communities, that have been pushed to the margins,” Cohen said, pointing to Baltimore’s past of redlined neighborhoods, keeping Black residents socially and financially disadvantaged.
Last year, the councilman was behind the Elijah Cummings Healing Act, which created a Trauma-Informed Care Task Force meant to train city employees on how to lessen the impact of trauma while performing their jobs.
Cohen said he expects those efforts to accelerate under Scott’s administration.
“We are not a safe city until everyone feels safe and until we have addressed the root cause, the ongoing trauma of living in disinvested neighborhoods,” Cohen said.
While activists nationwide have called for a radical restructuring of police, Scott said his goal is to work with Police Commissioner Michael Harrison to focus on repeat violent offenders and on adding community foot patrols. He added that plans to tackle crime “must include police, but it is not solely their responsibility.”
Scott said the 911 system has placed too much of an emphasis on officers solving problems they’re not thoroughly trained for, such as behavioral health issues or handling someone struggling with addiction.
He said it’s taken officers away from doing more investigative work or monitoring the streets for potential activity.
“We don’t have patrol officers, in my opinion. We have call takers,” Scott said.
Scott said that relieving officers of tasks they aren’t suited for or shouldn’t be doing would let them focus on guns and violence. He said that despite years of data suggesting that most illegal firearms in the state come from outside Maryland, Baltimore police do not have a comprehensive system tracking cases affected by those weapons.
“The police department has never had a local strategy ... to focus in on gun traffickers,” Scott said. “They should be able to tell me: Who are the top five gun trafficking organizations [in Baltimore]?”
Baltimore’s homicide streak began in 2015, the year Freddie Gray was fatally injured while in police custody. In the three years before that, the city averaged just 217 killings each year, according to records compiled by The Baltimore Sun.
Harrison said the department has done a far better job this year in getting guns and drug gangs off the streets. He pointed to several recent high-profile indictments of alleged gang members, including the Crips.
“We took down more violent drug organizations, and most of those people were tied to violent crimes and murders,” Harrison said. “All of those arrests helped us get where we are, although we need more improvement.”
The largest drug and gang arrests and indictments have been conducted in conjunction with Baltimore Police and the U.S. Attorney’s Office, with the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office not participating in the actions or in the news conferences that followed.
Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby said in a statement that “operational instability in leadership at the police department has continually exacerbated the cycles of violent crime in Baltimore.”
When Harrison was hired in 2019, he was the fifth person chosen to lead the department in the past five years, with his most recent predecessor having been sentenced to 10 months in federal prison for tax fraud just last March.
“We remain one of the most deeply inequitable cities in the country and, as a result, we have communities, particularly Black and brown communities, that have been pushed to the margins.”— Councilman Zeke Cohen
Mosby wrote that she’s “optimistic about Commissioner Harrison and his ongoing leadership and his work to bring about change to the department.”
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She added that the city “must allow him the autonomy and time to do his job” while also pledging to work alongside state and federal law enforcement agencies.
Potential policy changes or federal indictments are of little consolation to families of victims coping with tremendous loss.
Brea White, a 26-year-old Baltimore woman, was killed Nov. 8 inside a vacant home in the 2600 block of E. Monument St. Her aunt, Latoya White, said she is devastated and waiting for an arrest to be made.
She is left with fond memories and the task of caring for Brea White’s 5-year-old daughter.
“All she wanted to do was succeed and achieve, and now she’s 26 and she is gone,” Latoya White said. “I just really pray that they have justice for her, because she really did not deserve that.”
Stephen Pendergarst, 31, was killed in late May. His wife, Jameelah Pendergarst, said the case remains unsolved.
“I try not to think about it most days. They are [nearly] at 300, and he was like the 125th killing. I just want his case solved,” Pendergarst said. “As much as you want the officers and detectives to get things done faster, you can’t [because] COVID is real and it is slowing things down. All I can do is pray that they get it solved and get it solved fast.”
This article has been updated. An earlier version stated a year-to-date homicide total that was overstated by one; a death previously deemed a homicide had been reclassified as a suspicious death.