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Crime

Amid mounting scrutiny over poor treatment of gunshot victims in Baltimore, City Council hearing to address issues

Thomas Williams was injured in a shooting in 2016 when he said a masked gunman entered his grandmother's home, killing another man and shooting through a closed door at Williams, who had barricaded himself, protecting his grandmother and little brother. He said investigators repeatedly tried to get him to identify the shooters and treated him like a criminal. His experience mirrors that of other gunshot victims, according to a victim services report released in August.

Thomas Williams was staying at his grandmother’s Southwest Baltimore home in February 2016 when two masked men barged through the front door looking for his cousin.

Once upstairs, the gunmen shot and killed a close family friend, then shot through a bedroom door where Williams had barricaded himself, protecting his grandmother and little brother. Williams was shot and suffered a broken arm.

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At the hospital, he recalled how he wanted to see his mother, but Baltimore Police wanted to speak to him first. He said the officers kept trying to get him to identify the shooters, treating Williams like a suspect himself. He told them he didn’t know who the shooters were; they had been wearing masks. Williams said the officers showed little empathy as he still tried to process the recent trauma.

“How they are doing their job is affecting people,” he said in a recent interview with The Baltimore Sun. Police should be “somewhat more compassionate instead of treating me like a criminal. I have no criminal record.”

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Williams’ experience mirrors that of many Black residents impacted by violence, according to a recently released report detailing gaps in services for Baltimore gunshot victims and their families.

The Victim Services Capacity Assessment Report was conducted following a 2019 partnership between the city and the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Public Safety Partnership to fight violent crime. It was completed in July 2021, but officials waited until August 2022 to release the findings. City officials said they needed additional time to begin to address the issues outlined in the report.

During a scheduled hearing Thursday afternoon, members of the City Council are expected to hear from the lead author, Heather Warnken, who now serves as the executive director for the Center for Criminal Justice Reform at the University of Baltimore law school. Council members will also hear from police and officials with the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement.

The hearing before the council’s Public Safety and Government Operations Committee will likely mark the first substantive public discussion about the report, which presents a scathing assessment of victim services — as well as a long list of recommended improvements.

“The reality that repeatedly emerged in this assessment is that Black residents impacted by violence … are more likely to be criminalized than to be seen as human beings deserving of dignity and support,” Warnken said in a statement. “Service providers in multiple settings expressed they often feel they are expending their limited resources trying to protect victims from the system, rather than proactively helping them heal.

“These dynamics don’t just fail residents in their most difficult moments. They profoundly worsen the relationship between the community and police — and the system as a whole.”

The report also highlighted various gaps in services, including relocation assistance, especially in cases where no arrest has been made. If the victim is experiencing domestic violence, has been deemed gang-affiliated or given informant status, those temporary housing resources can be even harder to come by because of eligibility requirements and other red tape.

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The report’s authors recommended more training on trauma-informed care for Baltimore police officers. In addition to coercive practices used to glean information from suspects, researchers found, officers often demonstrate a lack of empathy when delivering death notifications to loved ones.

In an interview, Warnken said she hopes the assessment will push city leaders to address these longstanding problems. Often, she said, investigators will assume victims are refusing to participate in an investigation because of a “stop-snitching culture.” But the reality is a “much more detailed, layered analysis of all the reasons why it’s often not pragmatic for people to participate because the system cannot deliver on their safety, either physically or emotionally.”

In a recent written response to the report, Baltimore Police and officials with the Mayor’s Office acknowledged the importance of the findings and said they’re already working on implementing many recommended changes. That includes serious efforts to build community trust and mend longstanding divisions between law enforcement and Baltimore residents, particularly people of color.

Warnken commended city officials on their promises. “But … all the new funding, hires and policy changes in the world will mean very little without the courage to do the more difficult, longer-term work of changing the culture,” she said, calling for more than just talking points.

The department is currently facing a federal lawsuit by several shooting victims who claim police unconstitutionally seized and held their car keys, money and other items.

In interviews with The Sun, gunshot survivors described their personal experiences, which paralleled several issues highlighted in the report.

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One young man, who was shot in the arm last year while walking to a West Baltimore corner store, said he arrived at the hospital and then waited at least an hour for detectives to come question him. During that time, he was experiencing severe pain and wasn’t allowed to see any visitors — including his mom, who had frantically rushed to the hospital upon receiving news of the shooting.

The victim requested anonymity to protect his safety because the case is unsolved.

When the detectives did start questioning him, the man told them he didn’t know the shooter. He said they nonetheless treated him like he should know.

“Whoever shot you was trying to kill you,” he recalled the detectives saying, based on the caliber of weapon used. The conversation lasted only a few minutes, the man said. When the detectives asked for his phone number to follow up later, he declined to provide it.

Though he suspected someone else was the target, he chose not to share that information. If the police wanted to solve the case, his thinking was they could “do their jobs and find out.”

Meanwhile, he wanted to move on from this unfortunate act of violence. He wanted to watch his son grow up, finish earning his HVAC certification and get back to work — his ongoing push to break a series of generational curses that landed his father in the streets.

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“I was just trying to hurry up and heal,” he said. “I was happy to be alive.”

Getting involved in a criminal investigation — and potentially landing the shooter in jail — was not a priority, the man said, partly because gun violence seemed like an inevitable presence in his life regardless; he listed several relatives and friends who have suffered gunshot wounds. Plus, he recalled experiencing police brutality himself from a young age.

“Some officers are good people, but others are out here violating people’s rights, having a power trip with this badge,” he said. “Just leave me alone.”

Warnken, the lead author, said she hopes city leaders take seriously the experiences of victims. She said efforts to overhaul the victim services landscape could complement ongoing reforms under the 2017 consent decree. Those court-ordered reforms were mandated after Justice Department investigators found a pattern of unconstitutional policing in Baltimore, especially among communities of color.

The oversight hearing on the report’s findings will take place in council chambers at 2 p.m. Thursday. Members of the public can also watch an online livestream.

Several months before the report was completed, leaders of one Baltimore anti-violence program launched their own effort to address gaps in services.

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Kurt Palermo, executive vice president of Roca Baltimore, said the case of one young man — who survived a gunshot wound in August 2020, returned home and was fatally shot on the same corner near Lexington Market the following week — made his staff realize the urgency of their outreach work: What if they could have intervened before those fatal gunshots?

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The nonprofit anti-violence program serves young men ages 16 to 24 through relentless outreach and intensive support services, including mental health resources, job training and housing opportunities. Many current participants are gunshot survivors.

After the 2020 shooting, Palmero said he directed his staff to prioritize outreach to all eligible nonfatal shooting victims within 48 hours of a Baltimore shooting. Levar Mullen, a Roca violence intervention specialist who has long worked to stop shootings in Baltimore, took on the new responsibility.

Mullen said the first step is most often a door-knock, followed by an “elevator pitch” about Roca. Typically, Mullen said, he emphasizes that he’s just there to offer help — not on behalf of law enforcement and not to discuss details of the shooting. He often mentions his own experience getting shot back in 2003.

“Nobody was showing up at my door offering help,” he said.

Roca recently received a federal grant through the Department of Justice to expand its after-shooting protocol.

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Mullen said he often hears from gunshot survivors who feel overlooked by both the criminal justice system and their health care providers. Finding safe housing and attending follow-up medical appointments can become insurmountable tasks in the immediate aftermath of a shooting, he said. And some victims choose not to cooperate with law enforcement because of legitimate concerns for their safety.

“I know what it’s like to go through that process — the trauma, the fear of not knowing whether you’ll get shot again whenever you step outside,” Mullen said. “How easy it is to feel like nobody really cares.”


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