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According to preliminary year-end crime statistics released this week, the number of arrests in Baltimore has declined while the likelihood of dying from a shooting in the city remains among the highest in the nation. (Emma Patti Harris/Baltimore Sun video)

The number of arrests in Baltimore declined last year while the likelihood of dying from a shooting in the city remains among the highest in the nation, according to preliminary year-end crime statistics released this week.

The data released by police also breaks down the 318 homicides that occurred in 2016, which was the city's second-deadliest per-capita year. That total was 26 fewer than 2015, when violence spiked following the death of Freddie Gray and the charging of six police officers involved in his arrest and transport.

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The total number of people shot in Baltimore last year — 938 — was just 60 fewer than New York, a city nearly 14 times more populated. Total arrests fell 7 percent compared with 2015.

Researchers and law enforcement officials have discussed many possible reasons for arrests falling over the last few years, including decreased enforcement on minor drug crimes to reflect society's shifting attitudes toward marijuana, the pullback of "stop and frisk" type policing because of complaints of unfair targeting of African Americans, and hesitancy by law enforcement to use force in a climate where police shootings are under greater scrutiny.

Former Deputy Commissioner Tony Barksdale said said he doubts that hesitancy is a factor in Baltimore, citing police's increase in gun seizures the last two years. If officers were hesitant, Barksdale said they wouldn't be putting their lives at risk arresting suspects carrying illegal guns. Instead, he believes that the department's patrol ranks are too thin and should be beefed up with officers devoted to other causes such as community policing or relations.

"We're in a fight," he said. "Public safety comes first."

For the first time in several years, police released more specific information as to what detectives believe prompted killings. In 2015, police assigned an "unknown" motive to 73 percent of all homicides.

Last year, detectives had motives for nearly 80 percent of all cases.

Drugs were linked to 55 homicides, arguments were a factor in 42 killings while robbery was linked to 31 homicides.

Retaliation was suspected in 50 killings. Revenge and longstanding grudges have long been a major factor in the city's homicides. Violence outreach workers and detectives say disputes often flare between close friends, associates and even distant relatives, causing deeply felt rifts while also allowing for close-up interactions that prove fatal.

"We live in Smalltimore, and in a lot of cases you're not talking about six degrees of separation, you're talking about two," said Shantay Guy, executive director of Community Mediation, a nonprofit that works with the Baltimore State's Attorney's Office to mediate conflict. "Conflicts can even be passed down from a generational perspective."

The percentage of people killed in shootings remained flat at 86 percent while the rate at which people died in shootings remained the same as 2015. One person died in every three shootings last year, making Baltimore one of deadliest cities for gun violence in America.

The Baltimore Sun spent a year studying fatal shootings last year, comparing the deadliness of shootings in Baltimore with those in other large cities such as Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Milwaukee and Washington. It found that Baltimore shootings were more fatal because suspects used increasingly larger caliber weapons, more bullets and close proximity.

In 2015, 62 percent of all fatal shooting victims were shot in the head. That percentage dipped to 55 percent last year.

The street was where 56 percent of homicides in 2016 took place, a marked decrease from the previous year when 65 percent of all victims were killed in the street. People killed in vehicles last year increased from 8 percent of all homicides to 11 percent. Forty people were killed in homes, eight people were killed in public areas such as parks and 10 people were killed in vacant dwellings, up from three in 2015.

The largest percentage of homicide victims were between the ages of 18 and 24, a slight increase from 2015. Seventy two victims were between 30 and 39 years old and 65 were in their mid to late 20s. The overwhelming majority of victims — 93 percent — were black and 92 percent were male.

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Nearly 85 percent of all homicide victims last year had prior records compared while 44 percent had been arrested for violent crimes; 46 percent for gun crimes.

Police saw detectives close more homicide cases last year but the closure rate remained drastically lower than the national average. Detectives solved nearly 39 percent of cases, up from 31 percent in 2015. Fifty-two of the 88 cases they closed were from murders that took place before 2016.

The national average of homicide cases that are closed each year is about 62 percent and has been falling for several years, according to the Murder Accountability Project, a nonprofit group that tracks closures.

Thomas Hargrove, the group's founder and chairman, said he believes the national decline is due to municipalities providing inadequate resources to police, partly because of budget shortfalls precipitated by the recession.

The ranks of Baltimore police, the eighth largest police force in the country, have depleted over the last several years. A department of 2,800 sworn officers in 1990, decreased to 2,646 in 2015 and 2,528 as of Dec. 1.

"Investigating a murder is like any other war, you have to have significant boots on the ground to win," Hargrove said.

He also said distrust that widened between police and some communities over several high profile killings of unarmed black men by police over the last three years has led to more witnesses remaining silent.

"There is no question there has been an erosion of trust both ways, between the police and the community they serve," he said, "and that, too, has been deadly."

Killers roaming free become "walking testimony that there are no sanctions," Hargrove said.

"If we let killers walk the street," he said, "the killing is going to continue and likely get worse."

The percentage of suspects who were on probation or parole at the time of the killing surged last year, from 24 percent to 34 percent. Of those, suspects on parole or probation for gun crimes jumped from nearly 2 percent to 9 percent last year.

Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton contributed to this report.

Twitter.com/justingeorge

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