As the Memorial Day weekend has begun, gun violence in Baltimore is down, homicides are slightly off last year’s torrid pace and police are closing more cases, an apparent benefit of having more detectives on the street and, they say, better communication between units.
Neither data point is cause for celebration: The number of people killed last year was a per capita record, and the homicide unit is still closing less than half of its cases. There hasn’t been an arrest in any of the 26 homicides so far this month, including four Sunday.
A look at police department data on shootings and interviews with detectives and officers show the coronavirus that has closed businesses, canceled events and forced residents to stay inside has been suppressing burglaries, assaults and other crimes. Property crime is down by nearly 25%.
“I would say that I probably expected violence to subside a little bit more than it has. It has kind of ebbed and flowed — some really good weeks and other weeks that aren’t so good.”
Police Maj. Steve Hohman
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As of Friday morning, nonfatal shootings were down more than 15% compared with this time last year — from 257 to 213. Homicides are essentially flat, down 4% as of Friday, with 110 people killed this year compared with 115 killings at this time last year.
“I would say that I probably expected violence to subside a little bit more than it has,” said Maj. Steve Hohman, who commands the Baltimore Police homicide and citywide robbery sections, which were combined last year. “It has kind of ebbed and flowed — some really good weeks and other weeks that aren’t so good.”
As of mid-March, before the state of emergency was declared, total violent crime was down slightly, and property crime was down more than 10%. Those declines have deepened during the stay-at-home period of the past two months: Total violent crime through May 16 is now down 10% compared with this time last year.
City Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer pointed to the most recent data as encouraging given that people have been starting to reengage more as they get antsy with stay-at-home directives.
“The fact that numbers are still trending down even with people starting to get out there, hopefully is a start of these changes that we’ve been eager to see,” Schleifer said.
Lindsey Eldridge, the top spokesperson for the police department, said commanders plan to continue to adjust tactics for the summer months.
“Not only do we adjust crime and deployment strategies every month, but each district produces weekly crime plans to implement appropriate staffing, deployment, business checks and community engagement,” Eldridge said in an email.
Police statistics show two of the city’s most historically challenged police districts have driven the decline in gun violence.
In nearly three months since late February, there have been just five killings in the city’s Western District, which last year led the nine police districts with 59 homicides — or about five per month. The district has seen a 35% decline in combined fatal and nonfatal shootings for the year.
The Eastern District, meanwhile, has experienced a year-to-date 25% decline in total shootings.
Hohman said detectives remain hard at work and since the start of the pandemic have closed 20 cases that occurred in prior months or years. He said the unit has made 50 arrests related to homicide cases this year.
The Baltimore Sun recently reported how police failed to implement reforms contained within a critical analysis by a think tank in 2016.
The homicide unit added a dozen new detectives at the end of last year, and Hohman expects to add more in the coming weeks to backfill departures. He said detectives’ caseloads are still too high, but officials have been altering work schedules, developing new training curriculum and seeking to pair junior detectives with veterans.
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“I don’t want to call it reform, but maybe refocusing and going back to basics,” Hohman said.
Hohman said a reduction in in-person meetings among commanders seems to have led to an increase in overall communication across units. “We’re talking about cases multiple times a day, multiple times a week,” Hohman said.
He praised cooperation between homicide detectives and members of the District Action Teams in the Southern District, who compared notes leading to arrests in a double murder that occurred in Brooklyn last month.
The sergeant whose squad made the arrests, Robert Cherry Jr., tweeted earlier this month about the case that it “exemplifies how detectives from Homicide, who assumed the investigation after the incident, and the patrol officers of SD, who worked the area where the victims were killed, can make a difference in locating witnesses and solving the crime.”