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As Baltimore homicide count passes 150, police chief Michael Harrison says 'culture of violence' must change

Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison talks about the recent increase in violence in the city as well as the pollice response to it. (Ulysses Muñoz, Baltimore Sun video)

Two days after an especially violent weekend pushed Baltimore’s homicide count to more than 150, Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison said Baltimore’s “culture of violence simply has to change.”

Harrison held a news conference amid the latest outbreak of shootings that have marked his nearly five months on the job. As of Tuesday morning, 152 people have been killed — more than the 133 killed in the first six months of last year.

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He cited details of three of the seven most recent shootings to highlight what he called the quick reaction of his officers working the streets. He said investigators believe the victims in all three knew their shooters, and an arrest was made quickly in a homicide on Fulton Avenue. In another homicide on Bradford Street, Harrison said officers were close enough to hear gunfire, while at another homicide on Whittier Ave., police arrived “so quickly” that the assailants abandoned their car and fled. They got away and are still at large.

“I say all this to help illustrate that our officers are very often in the right places and at the right times, but violent crimes are being committed anyway, which speaks to a certain culture of violence where criminals do not fear any possible consequences from the criminal justice system,” Harrison said at police headquarters.

“That culture of violence simply has to change,” he said,

Facing the onslaught of violence, Harrison announced “certain adjustments” he hoped would help. He said the the department moved about two dozen officers to the Eastern District this past weekend and also discussed a new strategy of requiring officers to spend more time in 120 “micro-zones” where there have been high rates of violence over the past five years.

Records of the shootings show that violence has spanned the city. The Southwestern and Western districts have the highest number of murders — 31 each, followed by the Eastern, which has had 23. The Northwestern and Northeastern each have 15 homicides to date.

The Southeastern District, which had the fewest number of homicides in all of 2018 with 12, has seen a substantial increase. The district, which includes waterfront communities like Canton and Fells Point, but also more challenged communities along the Route 40 corridor including McElderry Park and Madison-Eastend, already has seen 15 murders. Among the victims is 19-year-old Jennyfer Velazquez, who was shot and killed in the 400 block of N. Montford Ave. in McElderry Park over Memorial Day weekend.

July has historically been one of the city’s more violent months. In 2015, when homicides peaked at 342, 45 people were killed in the month.

“No one should be happy with how violence is going in this city right now,” City Council President Brandon Scott said Tuesday.

Scott said the council continues putting pressure on police to curb the violence, but noted that Harrison has still only had a few months on the job.

Scott said he would like to see the department implement ways to address non-emergency calls without having to dispatch an officer. Freeing up officers from more routine calls would give them the ability to be more proactive, he said. Scott said he’d also like to see a strategy where investigators identify and target the small number of criminals who are committing violence. He said the department can also leverage federal partnerships to get illegal guns off city streets.

“These are things the department can do right now,” he said, adding that Harrison “just got to Baltimore in January. It’s going to take time. … For us it’s been too long. I’m confident he will implement those necessary changes.”

Leaders of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge #3, however, have questioned Harrison’s crime strategies, including his plans for the smaller hot zones. Union leaders have also routinely complained of the severe shortage of officers.

“Less police officers and more zone to cover clearly means a thinly stretched Patrol Division. Anyone who already monitors BPD radio communications know that calls for service are already continuously backed up in these zones, especially during most active times,” union president Sgt. Mike Mancuso wrote in a statement.

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Kinji Scott, a longtime community activist who lives in Northeast Baltimore, questioned the department’s broader crime plan.

Scott said that Harrison was hired based on his experience with the New Orleans Police Department, and he needs to show progress in Baltimore.

He believes police are less likely to be proactive after the arrest of Freddie Gray, whose death set off protests and rioting in the city in 2015, and in the wake of the Gun Trace Task Force scandal, in which eight officers were convicted of robbing residents.

“We need officers who are actively engaging people on these corners,” Scott said. “It’s OK to hold police accountable, but we also need to hold the violent criminals accountable. We see a free-for-all in our community. Nobody is holding these people accountable.”

Volunteers with Baltimore Ceasefire 365, an anti-violence initiative, have championed its “Nobody kill anybody” program that runs four times a year during “Ceasefire weekends.” The next event is planned for the first week of August.

Erricka Bridgeford, a community mediator and one of the founders of the movement, said she remains certain that Baltimore can and will do better, and said the success of the weekends show that everyone in the city — even the criminals — want the violence to stop.

A Baltimore Ceasefire 365 study found that there was an average 52% reduction in shootings on Ceasefire weekends, taking into account seasonality and other trends. According to the author, Peter Phalen, “the true effect could be anywhere from a 32% to 66% reduction.”

Throughout the year, Ceasefire volunteers head to scenes of recent shootings and hold “sacred space rituals” to bless areas where murders have occurred and pray for the victims. Though residents struck by recent grief often express frustration about the disregard for human life, Bridgeford sees something more positive.

“It means that people do have regard for life,” she said. “It also tells us people want peace. Those involved in violence are wanting peace in the city.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Christine Zhang contributed to this story.

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This article has been updated with new data from a Baltimore Ceasefire 365 study.

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