As city surpasses 300 homicides, top leaders Mosby, Davis, Pugh discuss crime fight

As Baltimore surpassed 300 homicides for the second consecutive year, the city's top prosecutor and police commissioner told a group of business leaders Wednesday that they are pushing crime-fighting strategies that they believe will reduce the carnage.

Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby called the city's homicide rate "extremely disturbing, especially when we see the level of retaliatory violence that's taking place in our city."

Until last year, Baltimore had not suffered more than 300 homicides in a year since the 1990s. Last year's 344 victims gave the city its highest rate on record.

Killings are down this year, but the total number of shootings remains the same. There have been more than 5,100 robberies in 2016 so far, an increase of 17 percent over the same time last year.

At a separate news conference Wednesday, Mayor Catherine E. Pugh expressed dismay about the homicide rate, and suggested installing thousands more lights in Baltimore neighborhoods to curb crime.

"It's really sad we're at 300 murders," Pugh said. "The murders are a big problem for our city. We know there are too many guns on the street."

She said crime "is an indicator of other systemic problems."

"This conversation is not just with the police department," she said. "It has to be with community leaders and others in our community. What are we going to do to convince folks to put down the guns? The shootings have got to stop. The killings have got to stop."

Two men, ages 42 and 48, were shot to death Tuesday night in the 3900 block of Groveland Ave. in Northwest Baltimore — the 300th and 301st homicide victims of 2016.

Police have not released their names or provided any details of the shootings.

City leaders were encouraged as the number of people killed in the city dipped below 200 for the first time in decades. But the violence spiked last spring after the death of Freddie Gray and the unrest that followed, and it has continued at an increased rate.

Mosby told the Greater Baltimore Committee that authorities are trying to improve the experience of crime victims and witnesses in an effort to get them to come forward and help solve crimes.

Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said killers are "convinced no one will speak up."

Mosby called Baltimore the "home of witness intimidation."

"What's … extremely disturbing, being a mother, is when you have 4-, 6- and 90-year-olds being shot in broad daylight and people don't want to come forward," she said.

Davis said police need to make quick arrests not just in homicides but also in nonfatal shootings — which he said represent "unfinished business."

Pugh, asked by a reporter about reducing crime, said she confers with Davis, but wasn't dictating strategy.

"I don't seek to run the Police Department," she said. "I just want them to get the crime numbers down."

Pugh said her administration is exploring adding about 6,000 lights around Baltimore. She said wealthier neighborhoods, such as Canton and Federal Hill, are well lit and experience less crime.

"The neighborhoods are just too dark," Pugh said. "We've got to light the city up. … I'm talking about lights that will make it brighter in our neighborhoods and make people feel safer. That will be one of the things that will help to curb some of the violence in our city."

The GBC event was moderated by former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who presided over the city during the 1990s, the last time the number of people killed regularly exceeded 300.

Schmoke called the killings a "matter of great concern to all of us."

He asked the officials if there was a reason, other than the concentration of poverty in Baltimore, that the city has not been able to reduce crime at the rate achieved in Washington, which was once the more violent city.

Murders increased in Washington last year, too, but at less than half the rate as Baltimore.

Schmoke, who is now the president of the University of Baltimore, asked whether there is still tension between the Police Department and the state's attorney's office over Mosby's decision to prosecute six officers in Gray's arrest and death.

Gray died in April 2015 after suffering a severe spinal cord injury in police custody. After Mosby brought criminal charges against the officers, there were reports that police were making fewer arrests.

"Clearly, initially, there was some sort of hesitancy," she said. "I think we've worked through that."

Mosby said the majority of police officers her office works with are "hardworking, risking their lives day in and day out, and understand the importance of their job."

Davis said he is aware of concerns within his department, but said officers were working hard. At the higher levels of the two agencies, Davis said, there are strong working relationships.

He joked that people hoping to see "fireworks" when he and Mosby appear at events together are disappointed.

Mosby and Davis said they plan to return to Annapolis during the legislative session next year to urge lawmakers to take away judicial discretion to suspend jail time for people caught with loaded, illegal guns.

Davis said 60 percent of the jail time for people convicted of that crime this year has been suspended.

Mosby said her homicide prosecutors have a 79 percent conviction rate, despite a soaring caseload. She said her office has a 93 percent conviction rate on felony cases that go forward.

"The problem is not necessarily the police," she said. "And clearly when [prosecutors] get to court we're able to sustain convictions."

Asked about the progress of negotiations with the U.S. Department of Justice over police reforms, Mosby said "the sooner, the better."

The city's congressional delegation has expressed concern about the fate of the consent decree if it is not finalized before President-elect Donald J. Trump takes office.

Davis said the process should not be rushed, because the city will have to deal with the terms of the agreement for years to come.

"I understand the election has introduced a new dynamic, but that shouldn't cause us to slam the gas pedal and get something wrong for a decade," Davis said.

Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the Abell Foundation, endorsed the Police Department's trial run this year of a surveillance plane, and asked if police have reached a conclusion about whether to continue its use.

Davis said a review should be completed before the end of the year.

Davis said 83 percent of homicides have occurred in outdoor public spaces, and more than 50 percent occur during daylight hours. He said the surveillance plane was intended to help solve crimes at a time when the community is asking for less aggressive policing.

Mosby and Davis were asked about bail reform, which is expected to come up in the legislative session.

Attorney General Brian E. Frosh has pushed a rule change that would ensure defendants in Maryland are not kept in jail solely because they can't afford bail.

Davis said he was concerned about "inherent issues" regarding bail, but also worried about unintended consequences of moving away from the system.

Mosby said her office is using grant money to study how prosecutors make bail recommendations.

She said bail reform is "definitely an issue."

"I believe the courts will take it up," she said. "And they probably should."

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