Robberies in Baltimore are up 12 percent compared to the same time last year, pushing overall violent crime in the city up 5 percent despite other crime — including homicides, rapes, and arsons — being down, according to citywide crime data.
An 11-year-old boy was walking near Patterson Park in Southeast Baltimore when five teenagers approached on bikes. One pulled out a knife, according to police, said, "Give me your stuff," and rifled through the boy's pockets. He stole $6 and a cellphone.
Across town a couple of hours later, a 64-year-old man was reading a book on a bench in the Wyman Park Dell near the Johns Hopkins University. A group of teens approached, police say, put a gun to his head, sprayed him with pepper spray, stabbed him and stole his belongings.
One of the teens casually streamed video of the attack on Facebook.
Law enforcement officials say both incidents — described in police records — fit an alarming pattern: roving groups of armed teenagers, working around the clock and across Baltimore, brazenly targeting victims for cash, cellphones and other belongings.
They say the attacks are helping to drive the highest rate of robberies the city has seen in years.
"We just have a larger pool of suspects because we are now seeing juveniles who don't have a juvenile record being involved in these crimes," said Baltimore police Maj. Kimberly Burrus, commander of the department's district detective unit, which investigates robberies citywide.
"When we arrest one group of juveniles, we have another group that pops right up."
Gavin Patashnick, chief of the juvenile division in the Baltimore state's attorney's office, said the trend is not necessarily new, but one that prosecutors are trying to combat.
"The public's fed up, and the perception is that we live in a 'Clockwork Orange' world where kids are roaming around and beating people up," Patashnick said. "We're always trying to figure out the answer, what the magic bullet will be to solve violence, particularly youth violence."
Ericka Alston-Buck, who heads Kids Safe Zone in West Baltimore, said youth crime — even when it appears brazen or careless — is often an expression of the teens' own vulnerability. Kids can be compelled toward crime, she said, either as a means of social or physical survival in impoverished neighborhoods, or as an emotional release after suffering trauma in their dysfunctional family lives.
"We've got all these lost kids," she said.
Robberies were up 12 percent this year through Sept. 24 compared with the same period last year, according to citywide crime data, reaching at least a six-year high. The increase has pushed overall violent crime up 5 percent, despite declines in other crimes, including homicides, rapes and arsons.
The spike in robberies is being led by carjackings, up 44 percent, and "miscellaneous" robberies — at schools, Metro stations and other semi-public locations — which are up 64 percent. Residential robberies are up 7 percent; street robberies are up 16 percent. Commercial robberies are down.
The Police Department's clearance rate for robberies this year is 34 percent, slightly below the rate last year, but above recent national averages.
Police said they do not track the ages of robbery suspects in the city, so it is impossible to know whether the number of youths committing such crimes has risen, or by how much. In many cases, the ages of suspects in an unsolved robbery are unknown.
What is known is that the number of juveniles charged with robbery has increased, from 220 last year through Sept. 23 to 265 during the same period this year, according to the state Department of Juvenile Services, a 20 percent jump.
The number charged with carjacking rose from 13 to 20. The number charged with robbery with a deadly weapon rose from 54 to 58.
While police are arresting more youths, Burrus said, younger teens are ready to take their place. And when juveniles are arrested for serious robberies, she said, they are being processed quickly through the juvenile judicial system and landing back on the streets to commit the same crimes again — at times with court-ordered monitoring devices strapped to their ankles.
"We see a lot of juveniles committing crimes that they have already been arrested for," Burrus said.
Police say groups of juveniles and others were intentionally causing fender-benders to rob the unsuspecting drivers of the vehicles they hit. In North and Northwest Baltimore, police say, a group who called themselves "the Jankz" were recruiting juveniles to commit carjackings, then using the vehicles themselves to commit more robberies.
And police say they have seen a citywide increase in callers luring for-hire sedan and illegal hack drivers to a location, where they are approached by a female and then robbed by two males.
The increase in robberies is most pronounced in the Southeastern District, where they're up 38 percent, and the Southern District, where they're up 30 percent.
Robberies are up 11 percent in the Central District, 16 percent in the Eastern District and 12 percent in the Western District.
Robberies are down 3 percent in the Southwestern District, 4 percent in the Northwestern District and 12 percent in the Northern District. They're up 20 percent in the Northeastern District.
Burrus said officers feel as if they are "dealing with a different mentality and a different culture" in Baltimore, in which teens are more willing than ever to engage in violent crimes.
Patashnick, of the state's attorney's office, said prosecutors and police have had some success in recent years disrupting youth robbery trends, such as teens targeting their peers around school buildings.
Still, he said, the volume of teen robberies is a problem, and has grown since he was an assistant state's attorney about a decade ago, when more of the juvenile crime in the city was associated with drug dealing.
"Now what we're seeing is a lot less drugs — a lot less drugs, it's shocking — and we're seeing a lot more robberies," he said.
Teens in poor neighborhoods have realized they can make as much money robbing people as they do dealing drugs, Patashnick said, with less risk of becoming victims of violence themselves.
Jemal Cole, a 42-year-old computer programmer who lives in the Chinquapin Park neighborhood of North Baltimore, said he knows the pattern well. The father of two has been robbed twice in the last year.
The first time, in November, he was walking along Northern Parkway when he was struck in the head from behind, punched repeatedly in the face and kicked in the ribs. His nose was broken, and he needed stitches. His cellphone and wallet were stolen.
He never got a good look at his attackers, but a witness described them as teens.
In January, Cole was walking in the area when a teen "ran up from behind, punched me, threw me up against a car and smashed me in the face with a rock a few times," he said.
Another teen produced a gun, he said. They took Cole's phone and ran off, "just sort of laughing and joking and smiling the whole way."
Cole spoke with police both times, he said, but no suspects were arrested.
After the second attack, he said, he and his wife "stopped walking around our neighborhood for the most part."
"I just don't understand the glee in beating someone up and making a game of it," he said. "I remain hopeful. I want kids to do better. I want all of us to do better, the city to do better. I haven't stopped giving to charities that serve these kids, or hoping that things will turn out better for these kids. I just wish they would have some empathy for other people."
Patashnick said prosecutors often ask that teens who have committed violent crimes be detained, but sometimes the assessments used in juvenile cases to determine whether a youth will offend again lead judges to put them back on the street.
He said the state's attorney's office is working to provide more support programs for kids to prevent recidivism.
Alston-Buck, of the Kids Safe Zone, said some kids are "stealing for sport" to blow off steam in a world where they are routinely traumatized, poorly educated, disrespected and given few outlets to expend their energy and frustration in constructive ways.
She said others are trying desperately to fit in on city streets where cash flow means cachet, so they rob a victim and then go out and buy the most popular pair of sneakers, or bags and bags of candy for their peers.
"They want to be the man on the block," she said.
Others, she said, are turning to crime to survive.
"Do we understand how many teens are homeless?" Alston-Buck asked.
She said the city needs more "trauma-informed" adults to help teens turn their lives around and the resources to help them do it.
She described a recent conversation with a man in his early 20s. He told her he was struggling to get by. His mother had recently died; his father was nowhere to be found. He was sleeping at a girlfriend's house but had to pay her family to do so.
"He said, 'How do you think I eat at night?' And I said, 'I don't know,'" Alston-Buck said.
"He said, 'I rob people. I literally hide in a bush near a bus stop. I don't care if it's an old lady. I don't care if it's a mother and her children. I don't care if it's a guy in a uniform. I rob people.'"
The young man told her he sleeps with a .45-caliber handgun and a .38-caliber handgun.
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