As Baltimore's mayor on Wednesday consoled the family of a hospital worker used as a human shield during a gang shooting downtown, elected officials and community activists called on the city to do more to combat gang violence.
The killing of Brandon Finney, a 25-year-old Maryland Shock Trauma Center technician, has rattled the city. He was waiting to catch a bus home after working a night shift Sunday when, police say, members of the Black Guerrilla Family targeted a rival Bloods member, who pulled Finney in front of him. Both died.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said Finney was "a young man doing what we expect young men to be doing — working hard to provide for their families."
"Despite our sorrow, we have to keep fighting for a safer city," Rawlings-Blake said in a statement. "We all must work together to attain lasting change, and to save more families the pain that Brandon's family is enduring right now."
The Rev. Cortly "C.D." Witherspoon said the senselessness of the killing — Finney was the latest innocent victim in a city that has seen 160 homicides so far this year — has reinvigorated discussions in the community about crime.
"He was out and about minding his own business," Witherspoon said. "It's systematic of the issues we have in this city."
"I see a lot of senseless crime and violence," said Finney's sister, Tiara. She described her brother as a good person "going down the right path. There was never a day where he wasn't smiling or joking."
The shooting occurred at the corner of Saratoga and North Paca streets on downtown's west side, an area targeted for redevelopment near Lexington Market and the University of Maryland School of Law.
At the scene Wednesday, business owners said they hoped the incident wouldn't scare potential customers, while some commuters said they are contemplating changing their routines.
Tiffany Thompson, a 23-year-old, first-year nursing student at the Community College of Baltimore County, said she's considering ditching the bus she takes to work every day.
"It makes me uncomfortable," the Edmondson Village resident said as she stood waiting for a bus. "I'm going to start driving. … You never know what could've happened. It's just ridiculous."
Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership, said that "there is some increased anxiety" over the incident. He also pointed to recent events, including those commemorating the 200th anniversary of the national anthem, that have taken place without major incidents.
"I don't think anybody feels this is a common occurrence," he said.
The double-homicide has brought gang violence back to the forefront. Police made the Black Guerrilla Family a top target last year. The Tree Top Piru gang, the Bloods subset to which the second victim allegedly belonged, became a prime target years ago when prosecutors brought a racketeering indictment related to the notorious "Stop Snitching" video.
Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke said she's been contemplating what more the city could do to prevent "such mindless tragedies." She said Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts, whose career was spent in California, came to the city well-prepared to take on gangs.
"We know how to address this gang issue and [Batts] came here with experience at doing it, and I think we need to ratchet that up. That young man will not be brought back; his family, fiance, his child have lost him. We need to do much better by families and by Baltimore itself, whatever that takes.
"These gangs need to be taken down in this city. We need to do that."
Baltimore police did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday.
In his first month on the job, Batts said the Black Guerrilla Family was "expanding its reign," and last year amid an increase in both murders and nonfatal shootings, police largely attributed the violence to the gang.
Authorities connected the gang to several high-profile cases, including a contraband smuggling scheme at the city jail, and touted a series of large-scale indictments against members in the fall.
This year, with the city experiencing a year-over-year reduction in gun violence, police and city leaders have said little about gang activity.
Brandon Scott, vice president of the City Council's public safety committee, said the role of individual gangs has been overstated. Police have identified 47 criminal "groups" that count a total of 574 members in the Western District alone.
"Gangs in Baltimore change as frequently as NFL and NBA teams change colors. They are still playing the same game," he said Wednesday.
Batts said at a news conference in July that he believed police had made inroads in dismantling the Black Guerrilla Family, or BGF.
"We still have problems with groups overall, not just with BGF," Batts said. "We've dealt them some pretty significant body blows over the last two years.
"Are they active? Yeah, they're still active. Will we get rid of them overnight? No, we won't get rid of them overnight. But we have taken out a lot of their leadership and will continue to take their leadership on."
But Councilman Carl Stokes said he doesn't think the city is doing enough. He said that there are not enough officers in the streets and that poor-performing schools and high rates of unemployment create an environment where gangs are able to thrive.
Stokes also said police have not been able to make arrests of some high-ranking gang members.
"We haven't busted up these gangs at all. Add that to a prison system that's broken," Stokes said, referring to the indictment of BGF members who conspired with corrections officers to smuggle contraband into the detention center.
The Tree Top Piru gang figured prominently in the fallout from the notorious "Stop Snitching" video that surfaced in the mid-2000s. Nearly 30 members and associates — including Ronny "Skinny Suge" Thomas, the video's producer — were indicted in 2008.
Thomas is serving out a 17-year federal prison sentence. In April, his 14-year-old son, Najee, was fatally shot in Cherry Hill, a case that remains unsolved.
According to court documents, Tree Top Piru member Christopher Camphor, 20, was the second victim in the recent downtown shooting. Police pointed to the color of his shorts as evidence of an affiliation with the Bloods.
But his family denied that he was involved in a gang. His mother, Jamell, said she is reeling from the loss of her eldest son. She said he also was on his way home, waiting for the bus, when gunfire erupted.
"My son was not a gang member. He was well-loved," she said.
Camphor said her son's friend told her he had gotten into a dispute with one of the suspects the day before. She said her son went by the name "Steelz" because he was a body builder who lifted weights at their home. He was working as a janitor but had aspirations of becoming a male dancer, she said.
In addition to the two homicides, the suspects are charged with threatening to kill a witness. Police said in court documents that the shooting was retribution over a dispute.
Antwon Morton and Samuel Rogers, the men charged in the double killing, made their first appearances in court Wednesday and were denied bail.
Court officials said Rogers refused to be interviewed by jail officials, and a public defender made no comment on his behalf.
Defense attorney Russell Neverdon said he was investigating the case on behalf of Morton and could have evidence that "may be of assistance in exonerating him." He declined to elaborate.
A woman who identified herself as Morton's mother said her son was innocent but declined to give her name and said she was too distraught to discuss the case. "It's just so devastating, the whole situation. There's four families" affected, she said.
Near the shooting scene Wednesday, Roi Gee and Mike Randall stood outside Celebrity Cuts Barbershop, where they work. A few feet away, mourners have placed a collection of candles and balloons on the Saratoga Street sidewalk.
Celebrity Cuts was packed with customers, some of whom had children waiting with them, but employees said they expect to lose clientele at the barbershop that gets a lot of walk-in customers.
"It's a sad story, but that's the world we live in," Gee said. "I hope it gets better."
Randall, the shop's manager, pointed out two plaques from the City of Hope Ministries, thanking the barbers for an annual event in which they give more than 100 free haircuts. He hopes the block doesn't get a bad rap for what he called a "senseless" act.
"I couldn't believe it happened right here," Gee said.
Sun reporters Colin Campbell, Yvonne Wenger and Mark Puente contributed to this article.