Baltimore — Deadly gun violence shot up in Baltimore through the first half of 2019, extending a yearslong surge in shootings that has persisted here even as other big cities have gotten safer.
More than 150 people were killed in Maryland’s largest city through the end of June, marking a 17% increase in homicides over the same period last year. Counting non-fatal gunfire, more than 500 people were shot — an increase of more than 25%.
The shooting, which riddled crowds with bullets and claimed the lives of women and children, put the city on pace to see more than 300 homicides for the fifth year in a row. It also made Baltimore far more dangerous on a per capita basis than most other American cities — including Chicago, which has more homicides, but spread across a much larger population.
The increase in killings bucked a broader trend that showed a slight decline nationally through the first half of the year — in part on the strength of New York City’s decline of 13.5% and Chicago’s decline of more than 7%.
Baltimore has seen more overall killings this year than New York despite that city being more than a dozen times its size.
“I’m not happy about it, and neither should any citizen in Baltimore be happy,” said Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young. “It’s disheartening to be labeled the most violent city in America.”
The persistence of the violence, which first skyrocketed after the death of Freddie Gray from injuries suffered in police custody and the subsequent unrest and rioting in 2015, has left policymakers frustrated, business leaders discouraged, families devastated and children traumatized.
While the gunfire is particularly pervasive in certain distressed and disinvested parts of the city, it can arise anywhere, though some neighborhoods remain comparatively safe. Some residents ponder leaving, while others live in constant fear that their family will fall victim next — and for good reason.
Peter Moskos, a Baltimore cop turned criminology professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said he estimates, based on census data and the city’s elevated rates of gun violence, that upwards of 10% of black men in the most violent neighborhoods of East and West Baltimore will be shot dead, most before they turn 35.
“It’s hard to fathom,” he said.
Those in its path say the violence comes like a tornado: Sending shrapnel in all directions, it is impossible to ignore and crushing in its impact.
For some, it’s a repeated horror.
“This violence will tear your family apart,” said Arnetta Brown, 55, whose 28-year-old son, Brian Simms Jr. was fatally shot in the city’s Edgecomb neighborhood in 2013, and whose 16-year-old grandson, Markell Hendricks, was fatally shot in Franklin Square in March.
“This violence will suck all the breath out of your body and will wake you up in the middle of the night and make you think you’re suffocating," Brown said.
Young and other city and state officials say the violence is unacceptable and they are taking steps to stem it — a message they acknowledge has been conveyed repeatedly in past years, to an increasingly incredulous city.
In an interview, Police Commissioner Michael Harrison, who took over the department in February, said he will be releasing in coming days a comprehensive crime plan. It will incorporate the department’s enhanced deployments to 120 violent “micro-zones,” as well as other policing strategies for reducing crime. He declined to elaborate.
Harrison and Young also pointed to some positive signs in the crime fight. Beyond gun violence, other types of crime were down in Baltimore in the first half of the year, including robberies by 10% and overall property crime by 5%. Aggravated assaults were down, as well.
Harrison attributed the declines in what he calls “crimes of opportunity" in part to increasingly effective, data-driven deployments. He said he hopes such deployments will begin to help with the gun violence, too, but they can’t be the only solution to “a culture of violence in the city where young men are resolving their conflicts by using guns.”
“This violence will suck all the breath out of your body and will wake you up in the middle of the night and make you think you’re suffocating.”— Arnetta Brown
That will change, he said, only through interventions from a whole host of city agencies and other stakeholders.
Young agreed and pointed to his creation of the Office of Children & Family Success as one example of his administration’s focus not just on the violence, but on its root causes. Tisha Edwards, who heads the office, said she is working to connect families with the many public and private resources already available to them.
“My office is really about starting from the beginning, not reacting after something has happened," she said. The goal is to find out what children and families need "so they are not pushed into the criminal justice system.”
Some caught up in the violence agree that it will take a culture shift, not a policing strategy, to turn the tide. Brown, a former correctional officer, is among them.
Her son Brian was a dedicated father to five kids and was working at a restaurant at the time of his death in 2013. Her always-grinning grandson Markell was a student at REACH! Partnership School. Their killings were senseless and in public, she said, yet remain unsolved.
“I’m just angry with the people in the city, the people who know what happened and won’t tell, and then the people who’s just running around [shooting] for no reason,” she said. “You’re just out here taking lives, and it’s just for what? No reason at all."
Victims and their families can’t blame Harrison, she said, because “he’s human" and “can’t be everywhere and stop every bullet.” What the police need is help from the community to identify trigger pullers, she said.
“Until you start pointing them out, it’s not going to stop,” she said. "It’s us killing us. If we’re not saying nothing, it’s not going to stop.”
She said if people are fearful to speak out — and many legitimately are, for fear of retaliation or distrust in police — they can provide tips anonymously, or tell the families or friends of the dead rather than going directly to the police.
In the meantime, Brown said, she is trying to be strong for her family, including the grandchildren she is helping to raise.
“When I lost Brian, I didn’t understand how to grieve a child, and it took me maybe three years to come back to myself and learn how to live again,” she said. “And then when I was finally learning how to live again, I lose Markell. And there is nothing, nothing, that has taught me or shown me how to grieve a grandchild.”
Ava Mackall, 58, knows the feeling of having one’s life scattered by bullets.
In May, Mackall’s 28-year-old son, David Mackall Jr. — a former Maryland football player — was fatally shot in his childhood neighborhood of Walbrook in West Baltimore on a day off from his trucking job. He left behind two young sons.
“We are struggling so hard, so hard, because he was the man of the family," his mother said. “There wasn’t nothing that needed to be done that David didn’t do.”
Mackall said when her son was young, she bought a minivan so that he and his friends wouldn’t have to walk the streets, where she said “there are just so many people who don’t have any regard for life."
By the time David was 9 or 10, she said, he was telling her “he didn’t want to get hurt, and he didn’t want to hurt nobody.” By the time he was 14, she moved the family to the county, because her “goal was not to lose him to the streets.”
When he got a football scholarship, she felt she’d succeeded. Now, since her worst nightmare became reality, she has struggled to return to life and hasn’t gone back to work. Her grandsons are in counseling. There was an arrest in her son’s killing, but she’ll never understand it.
“It’s got to stop,” she said of the violence. “It’s got to stop.”
Across Baltimore, an array of officials say they are trying to stop it.
In addition to the forthcoming crime plan, Young said, he is seeking a meeting with Republican Gov. Larry Hogan on ways the state can help the city dig out of the murderous mire it has been in for half a decade. And he wants federal investigators to launch a more extensive investigation into the illegal gun trade.
“I’m sick of the shootings. I’m sick of the murders. We need help because we can’t do it alone,” Young said. “Where are all these guns coming from? There needs to be a federal investigation of where these guns are coming from, because we need to start targeting whatever ring it is that is responsible for bringing all these guns into the city of Baltimore.”
Mike Ricci, a spokesman for Hogan, said the level of violence in Baltimore “is sickening and the people who call it home deserve better.”
He said Hogan launched a $13 million initiative in January to help address violent crime in the city, and he has tried to get stiffer penalties for repeat violent offenders passed in Annapolis, without success. He also noted the governor has increased the presence of state police agencies in the city, among other initiatives.
U.S. Attorney for Maryland Robert Hur pointed to major criminal gang indictments his office has brought in Baltimore in recent months. He said his office, the Baltimore Police and other federal law enforcement agencies have recently developed a list of the 15 most violent gangs in the city to go after — and are chipping away at it.
“Job one is to reduce the level of violence in our city. It’s what we in law enforcement think about morning, noon, and night,” Hur said.
Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, whose office plays a key role in addressing crime, spoke of the challenges the city has faced due to turnover in other top offices, noting it has had five police commissioners and three mayors in four years. She didn’t respond to questions about what her office is doing to respond to the violence, saying only that she is “committed to ensuring a solid partnership” with Harrison and Young.
State Dels. Curt Anderson and Cheryl Glenn said they met with Young about two weeks ago to discuss strategies to fight violence. Glenn said she requested a meeting with the mayor and within an hour, the three, all Democrats, were talking at a hotel by the Johns Hopkins Hospital.
“Are we concerned? You’d have to be crazy not to be concerned,” Glenn said.
Glenn said Young spoke in personal terms about the weight the violence in the city has placed on him since he assumed the office in April, and how he is searching for answers. Anderson said there is “clearly a plan” that Young is working on.
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“It’s got to get done," Anderson said. "For me it’s got to get done soon.”
Glenn said they discussed a failed effort supported by then-Mayor Catherine Pugh to have the City Council impose new mandatory sentences for people convicted of possessing a gun, saying Young hasn’t given up on the idea. Anderson said Young expressed frustration that the council “seemed to be more focused on plastic containers and bike paths and things like that.”
City Council President Brandon Scott, also a Democrat, dismissed that concern.
“Anyone that says that this council hasn’t been focused in on violence, I think they have selective memory,” Scott said. “It was the council that demanded a crime plan, it was the council that demanded Safe Streets be saved and expanded, and now everyone else has jumped on that bandwagon.”
Brown said she doesn’t know much about strategy. She just wishes more people would think about the pain their actions can cause when they decide to pick up a gun.
“All I know is that the violence needs to stop, because we are killing off babies, women, elderly, and these are people’s family and children and loved ones, and it hurts,” she said. “It has to stop. I don’t wish this pain on anybody. Nobody should feel this. No child should go through this. No mother. No grandmother.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Ian Duncan contributed to this article.