Billy Hayes spent a Saturday earlier this month watching college football at his Northeast Baltimore home with his youngest son, Phillip. The next day, he didn’t think much about it when he heard about more violence in the city. The day after that, he learned Phillip, 40, was dead.
Detectives told him they believe his son might have been the victim of road rage, he said. Police found his car still running but heavily damaged, with four bullet holes through the windshield, in the 1500 block of Leslie Street in West Baltimore on Nov. 6.
“I have relived that scene a thousand times,” Hayes said in a recent interview. “I can feel his pain.”
Hayes is struggling to understand why someone would take his son’s life, or those of any of Baltimore’s more than 300 homicide victims this year.
“I can’t say we’ve normalized killings, but we have,” Hayes said.
This marks the seventh consecutive year of 300 homicides or more, a streak that began in 2015. The year’s total was 304 as of Saturday night.
The past week underscored the senselessness and range of the violence: a man shot three people, killing two, before an off-duty police officer shot him at a barbershop; a 5-year-old who died in a case in which police say there’s evidence of previous abuse; the stabbing death of a church worker, and the shooting death of a 13-year-old girl.
After the death Tuesday of 69-year-old Evelyn Player at Southern Baptist Church in East Baltimore, Democratic Mayor Brandon Scott showed frustration with questions about whether the city should change how it fights crime, saying people “have to have some sort of intelligence and understanding how an event like this is not something the police solely can prevent, because our police department is not going to be sitting in a church bathroom waiting for someone.”
Scott told reporters that police remain focused “on a section of Baltimore city, a certain group of people that commit violence.”
“They’re going out disrupting — with our state partners, with our federal partners — drug organizations that are flowing drugs and guns into our city.”
During its deadly run, the city has struggled with consistency in its leadership. Scott is the latest of four mayors since 2014, and the city has had five police commissioners. City leaders have introduced comprehensive crime plans, pushed to hire more and better trained officers and promised that this time, things would be different.
But the numbers of homicides and nonfatal shootings remain frustratingly consistent. By Nov. 19 of last year, there had been 294 homicides and about 640 nonfatal shootings. That’s a pace nearly identical to this year’s.
In Baltimore and nationally, many called for changes in policing after several high-profile deaths of individuals in custody, including 25-year-old Freddie Gray, who died here in 2015, George Floyd in Minneapolis last year and many others.
But what that change will look like remains a challenge for those seeking to reduce crime while protecting the civil rights of Baltimore residents who have long suffered from police abuses.
Some, including the police union, argue that efforts to ignore many lower-level crimes in favor of an emphasis on stopping the most violent ones have left officers timid and criminals emboldened. Others, however, have sought to reduce the department’s half-billion dollar budget, calling instead for more funding for social services to individuals before they resort to crime.
And a federal judge overseeing the city’s consent decree, put in place after years of abusive and criminal actions by some Baltimore officers, has said that its reforms will bring credibility to the beleaguered department and restore the community’s trust in the force, which will help to reduce crime.
Then there are the still-to-be-determined effects of new state laws to improve law enforcement, with steps such as widening access to officers’ disciplinary records, as well as a nascent process to return full control of the police department from the state to the city.
More than anything, the city’s top cop and others say, Baltimore must address the issues of poverty, addiction and other root causes if it hopes to significantly reduce homicides.
“The question is not why is it not going down. The question is why are they doing that?” Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison said recently in an interview with The Baltimore Sun’s editorial board.
To reduce homicides, Harrison said the city must address poverty, mental illness, drug addiction and other issues that contribute to the violence, which is has largely attributed to people choosing to settle differences with a gun.
The department has made adjustments, he said, such as adding more detectives to homicide and formal training for investigators, and commanders say they believe investigators have had more tips and cooperation from the community.
Harrison noted that officers are often on a crime scene within minutes, are sometimes even within earshot of shootings, but their presence is not enough of a deterrent.
Scott has created an Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement and launched the Group Violence Reduction Strategy. That strategy targets at-risk people and works to get them resources ― whether it’s a safe place to stay, addiction treatment, help getting a job — to put them on a different life path.
The program will focus initially on the Western District, which is one of the smaller police districts but has had 48 homicides this year, the most of the city’s nine districts. Violence peaked in the district in 2015, when 66 people were killed.
Similar initiatives were launched under previous administrations, but Scott and his team say this time is different due to improved collaboration between city, police and the office of Democratic State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby.
“It will take some time to build that up in the right way. We will see the dividends in the coming years,” he said in a recent interview.
Scott said that the unrelenting pace of violence in the city is unacceptable.
“It’s never been a number to me. It’s people, family, and communities,” he said. Scott said much of the city has focused on the number: “What happened is folks have gotten desensitized about what that means.”
Republican Gov. Larry Hogan announced a $100,000 reward Wednesday for information in the church worker’s death, while tweeting, “People are hurting, they’re scared, and they’re searching for answers. They want to know why this bloodshed keeps happening, and what it’s going to take for something to change.”
As the rapid pace of violence continues, many families are grieving.
The daughter of Player, who was killed at the church, cried on the porch of the East Baltimore home they shared.
“Who would want to hurt my mother?” asked Alethea Finch. “How could someone hurt someone in such a sacred place? … My heart’s broken into a million pieces. I don’t understand why this happened.”
At a vigil Thursday night for Player, speakers prayed that the city breaks the cycle of violence.
“If we ever needed you before, God, we need you now,” said youth minister Terrence Rogers.
Hayes, who lost his son earlier in the month, had been preparing for his five-year-old granddaughter to visit from Tampa, Florida. The girl and her mother were expected to visit with Phillip and the rest of the family at the same time. On Billy Hayes’s porch sat a box with a doll his son had ordered for his daughter, but did not live to give to her.
“He was just a good person with a good heart,” Hayes said of his son. “This will be with me for a very long time.”
Those feelings are happening to parents around the city. In East Baltimore, Tony Benton is grieving the recent death of his youngest son, 35-year-old Devin Benton. He said Devin was interested in opening a food truck to serve up hot dogs and other snacks to kids in areas of the city that don’t have many restaurants or stores.
“He was fun-loving, always smiling,” Benton said.
Devin Benton was killed Nov. 8 in the 6200 Cardiff Avenue in the O’Donnell Heights community of Southeast Baltimore. On a recent weekday, the street was largely quiet. A group of construction workers occasionally passed by, and a woman further down the street weeded her yard while a little girl played nearby.
Benton’s father said he believes there needs to be more effort to reach the young people who are being swayed into a life of crime.
“We need to get ahold of the young people,” he said.
Still, Benton said he feels many residents still don’t trust the police, and as a result, the violence is left unabated.
“They don’t go to the police because they don’t trust them. I know people who want to call them but they don’t trust them,” he said.
Benton said he does not know why his son might have been targeted; he said police have not provided a motive.
Benton said he had tried calling his son shortly before his was killed. When his son didn’t answer, Benton figured he was busy and would call back, but he never got that call.
“He was probably fighting for his life,” he said.
Benton asked what number his son was among the city’s victims. According to The Sun’s database, he was No. 291.
“It happens every day,” he said.
Baltimore Sun reporters Phil Davis and Emily Opilo contributed to this article.