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Crime

Baltimore approaching 200th homicide this year

While overall violent crime is down this year, Baltimore is approaching the 200-homicide mark for the third straight year, a grim milestone pushed by surging violence in Northwest Baltimore.

A man and a woman were killed this week in northwestern neighborhoods — where more people have been killed this year than in any year this decade, and police say they have increased patrols in the blocks surrounding the sites of many of the killings.

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The city's latest homicide victim — the 199th this year — was Sasha Bullock, 47, who was gunned down in East Baltimore on Tuesday while driving his minivan in the 2800 block of Ashland Ave.

Baltimore had reached 200 homicides on Tuesday but on Wednesday police learned that homicide detectives and prosecutors had ruled that a man's killing a few weeks ago had been "justifiable" or in self defense. The ruling removed one murder from police's official homicide count for the year because Baltimore police do not include killings in self defense.

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The city's homicide count is down 8 percent compared with last year, when Baltimore saw 235 homicides, a four-year high that put its homicide rate fifth among major cities in the country. It's also considerably lower than in the 1990s, when more than 300 people were killed every year.

Yet the 200-homicide figure remains a closely watched benchmark. In 2011, when the number fell to 197, city officials saw it as a tangible sign of progress in the city's crime-fighting and revitalization efforts.

But what many hoped was a milestone marking a downward trend instead became a statistical anomaly, as the city's homicide count increased the next two years.

"The murder rate is always a number of concern because that's a loved one," said state Del. Keiffer Mitchell, a former city councilman. "That's somebody's father, that's a mother, that's a child. ...It always means something."

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said she does not view progress by the number of homicides in Baltimore because each one represents a life in the city.

"I don't think there's an acceptable number of deaths in our city," she said.

The killings of African-American men in large numbers have touched many Baltimore families, including hers, Rawlings-Blake said. Last year, her cousin was killed in an apparent home robbery in Northwest Baltimore.

Sons, brothers and fathers are being lost, the mayor said, such as Bullock, whose family said he was a Navy veteran who had just undergone back surgery and was supposed to move to Atlanta on Thursday to take care of his ill mother.

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He was the dad who made sure stepdaughter Sha'quanna Wing-Bullock, now 30, had a Barbie dollhouse growing up, a little pocketbook and a bike with streamers.

"For him to get killed in the neighborhood he grew up in?" Wing-Bullock asked in shock. "You can't be safe. You can't be happy in Baltimore. Baltimore is out of control."

Rawlings-Blake said declines in crime this year are being achieved through new initiatives such as the violence-intervention program Operation Ceasefire. In its initial year, Ceasefire has focused efforts on West Baltimore, which has seen a 53 percent drop in homicides compared with 2013. Historically one of the city's most violent areas, the Western District has seen 29 killings this year compared with 40 at the same time last year.

Baltimore and many other cities have long used homicide numbers to measure the effectiveness of policing strategies. In 1999, now-Gov. Martin O'Malley was elected mayor of Baltimore after pledging to reduce annual homicides to 175 within a few years. While the city never achieved that mark, he saw Baltimore's 2011 count of 197 as a milestone he was "grateful" for.

"When we [set a goal of 175], there were some people who laughed," O'Malley told The Baltimore Sun in 2012. "There were many so-called smart people that said you'll never be able to do it. It's Baltimore, that's the way it always is."

O'Malley did not address Baltimore's crime rate but said in a statement this week that the state's violent-crime totals — which include non-negligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery and aggravated assault, along with homicide — fell last year to its lowest level since 1975.

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"There is still more work to do to ensure the safety of Maryland families and communities, but with continued efforts to rely on performance measurement and data-driven decision making, engage community partners, and invest in state-the-art-equipment, we will continue to build on that progress moving forward," O'Malley said.

Homicide numbers are often the first statistic listed on police crime maps or Web statistics. Philadelphia, for instance, has reported 235 homicides so far this year, up from 225 at the same time last year.

On Wednesday, the Washington Metropolitan Police Department reported that 96 people had been killed in the nation's capital, two fewer than this time the year before. In 2012, Washington recorded 88 homicides — the lowest number in more than 50 years. But the district could not match that progress in 2013, when 104 people were killed.

The increase in Baltimore's homicide totals since 2011 have mostly come under the watch of Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts, who took command in the fall of 2012.

He said Wednesday he believes officers have done a "steady job" curbing homicides and shootings since January. That month, the city saw a spike of 27 homicides that was followed by an unusually low 17 killings over the next two months.

"I'm not satisfied, but it's a step in the right direction," Batts said.

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Homicides and nonfatal shootings are down this year, as are nearly all categories considered violent crime except carjacking and commercial robbery. Homicides are down 20 percent in East Baltimore, but they are up 17 percent in South Baltimore, 13 percent in the Southwestern district and up 44 percent in Northwest Baltimore — where police said 71-year-old Peggy Harris was battered and stabbed to death Sunday by her 66-year-old husband, Nathaniel Harris, in the Cross Country neighborhood.

The number of domestic killings in Northwest Baltimore has been an especially troubling trend that is not easy to solve, police said.

"Nine of the homicides that have happened in July have happened indoors," Baltimore police spokesman Lt. Eric Kowalczyk said. "That's one of the things that is being looked at, so there's no clear-cut answer as to why it is happening. We are doing what we do. We are pulling together resources and looking for information on each of these cases."

As Rawlings-Blake announced a new tip line this week for residents to call to report illegal guns in exchange for $500 rewards, she said reducing violence remains her top priority as she seeks to increase the city's population by 10,000 over the next several years.

Officials downtown, where homicides and shootings are down by more than 35 percent, say businesses and workers don't pay as much attention to the city's homicide count as they do to "quality of life" crimes such as snatch-and-grab robberies.

Mitchell, who chairs a state House revitalization work group that seeks to attract more businesses to Baltimore, said police have made downtown and the Inner Harbor more inviting by closely monitoring holiday events that in past years have been marred by a fatal stabbing, celebratory gunfire, robberies and beatings.

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"People always judge crime based on the murder rate, but I like to look at overall crime," he said. "I think the current administration and the police commissioner are doing what they can in terms of the crime plan they have to make our city safer."

Michael Evitts, spokesman for the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, said downtown is experiencing a resurgence, and the main concern millennials have expressed before moving to the city is where to park and property taxes.

"Crime isn't a negative out there that's discouraging them from coming or, if it's out there, it's not limiting them from coming," he said.

Dominic Wiker, development director of the Time Group, which opened the 171-unit apartment complex 520 Park in June, said the project has exceeded projections and is 85 percent leased. None of the new renters, he said, have expressed concern about the city's homicide figures; just the vacant and rundown buildings in parts of downtown and West Baltimore.

"I've never heard anyone refer to the [homicide] number at all," he said.

jgeorge@baltsun.com

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