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City's Southern District sees unusual spike in homicides

Brooklyn resident Jerome Tuggle, who witnessed a shooting victim die outside his house, talks about crime in the neighborhood. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun video)

Four gunshots roused Jerome Tuggle as he slept on a Friday night. Outside his Brooklyn home, a badly wounded man was in the street, trying to crawl. Tuggle went outside to see if he could help.

"Stay still," Tuggle told him. He went back inside to get a towel and pressed it to the man's side. He urged him to hold on.

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Violence doesn't often visit the gentle sloping hill that makes up the 3700 block of 7th Street. But in a city besieged by shootings and homicides, Baltimore's Southern District leads the way in violence this year. Thirteen of the city's 60 homicides in 2017 have occurred in the Southern District. That's more than any other police district.

A man in Pigtown now keeps a gun on his coffee table, a father is enforcing a strict 6 p.m. curfew for his kids in Brooklyn, and residents in Federal Hill use social media to warn each other about carjackings.

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Tuggle, 54, grew up in East Baltimore, where violence occurred regularly. When he was 9 years old, he saw a man stabbed in the chest. He witnessed half a dozen people get shot over the years and was himself shot in the foot in his late 20s.

But when he moved to Brooklyn about two years ago, he thought he had found a safe haven — until he watched 24-year-old James Hendricks struggling to breathe on the night of Feb. 3.

Hendricks didn't survive. He was homicide No. 11 for the Southern District in 2017.

"Life has no value to a lot of people," Tuggle said.

The Southern District encompasses nearly 13 square miles that extend south from the Inner Harbor along the waterfront. Portions of it border Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties. It's a challenging area for police to patrol because the Patapsco River divides much of it.

Other crimes in the district have also increased. Nonfatal shootings are up more than 300 percent this year compared with the same time last year. Carjackings are up 171 percent. Robberies are up 59 percent. As with much of the violence in Baltimore, police can't say just what is responsible for the spike except to observe that one shooting often leads to another in retaliation.

In Pigtown, more than 70 people recently packed into a school cafeteria for a monthly neighborhood meeting. Pigtown is an eclectic, diverse community many consider on the cusp of becoming a hotbed for new residents if it weren't for dogged crime problems.

"Never seen it this large before," City Councilman Edward L. Reisinger said of the crowd. He listened as people spoke emotionally about robberies and property crime.

"I understand your frustration," he said.

A shortage of police officers was affecting police response, Reisinger said, but he said help was on the way with the recent lifting of a hiring freeze on 100 officer positions. Police also plan to add 125 more positions to fill longstanding vacancies.

Reisinger told residents to email Mayor Catherine Pugh and ask her to order the department to assign more beat officers to Pigtown.

"We definitely need foot patrolmen in Pigtown," he said. "There's no other strategy."

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Not everyone was assuaged. One man told Reisinger that he has asked the city to send more officers repeatedly.

"There's no foot patrols coming," he said. "I carry a f--- knife. I shouldn't have to."

Reisinger said he's received many calls and emails from constituents equally upset. One resident told him he keeps a 9-millimeter gun on his coffee table.

Standing near the back of the room, Beth Hawks shared her crime story. She had just shut her blinds getting ready to watch "Homeland" on television Feb. 9 when she heard multiple gunshots.

She peered out and saw a man wounded in front of her home on Washington Boulevard in Pigtown.

She said police showed up within "30 seconds." She lauded Reisinger for his responsiveness to her situation, and said residents need to continue to stay active and report crimes.

Baltimore police Major Brian Hance announced on Monday that he will no longer oversee police's Southern District, a region that has led Baltimore in homicides this year.

For the first time in the 10 years that she has lived in the neighborhood, Hawks said, the property value of her home has recently begun to rise.

She pointed to the coming $5.5 billion Port Covington project anchored by sportswear giant Under Armour as the reason. City leaders and residents are banking on the 260-acre development to transform nearby neighborhoods like Westport and Brooklyn that cling along the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River.

"Developers are now looking at this side," she said.

To her neighbors at the Pigtown community meeting, she said, "We have to keep momentum."

As the residents discussed neighborhood crime woes, two Baltimore homicide detectives worked in the dark about a mile away inspecting a shooting scene in the 2200 block of Annapolis Road in Westport, a mostly vacant block of crumbling row houses, boarded-up buildings and a turnoff for cars to enter Interstate 95.

Police believe the motive behind many of the shootings in the Southern District is retaliation.

On Jan. 26, a bullet flew into a Brooklyn firehouse at Maude Avenue and 5th Street while paramedics and firefighters were inside.

"Fortunately no one was near the window where the bullet came in," said Baltimore Fire Department spokeswoman Blair Adams.

The next night, shots rang out again at the same corner, wounding two 18-year-old men and a17-year-old boy in a mask who was attempting to flee from officers when a police helicopter spotted him.

Major Brian Hance, commander of the Southern District until late February, when the department transferred him and his top subordinate, believes the firehouse shooting was an errant bullet that missed its target — someone who would be shot the next night.

Hance described how interconnected police believe violence is in the Southern District. Detectives believe one of the wounded teens near the firehouse was a suspect in the Feb. 3 homicide outside Tuggle's house.

Police have arrested Malik Price, 18, and charged him with first-degree murder in Hendricks' death.

A police spokesman declined to comment on what precipitated the leadership changes in the Southern District, calling it an internal personnel matter. Hance was replaced by Maj. Steve Ward.

Police have arrested Courtaz Moore, 20, in the triple shooting near the fire house, based in part on tips from community members who are "fed up" with the violence, Ward said.

In an interview this week, Ward said his top priority is getting violence in Brooklyn and Pigtown under control because it is spreading fear throughout the district.

"It can't continue that way," he said. "Having that many shootings and homicides in one area, there is a connection. You have to find the connection."

Ward, a former shooting detective, said he is returning the district to "the basics" in crime fighting: identifying the people responsible for the violence and building strong cases that allow police and prosecutors to "extract them" from the community.

He said his officers are in regular contact with individuals who are suspected of crimes but haven't been charged. The officers are reminding those suspects — legally, with citizen contact sheets filled out each time — that they are on law enforcement's radar, Ward said.

"We are getting on top of it," he said. "We are getting in front of the violence."

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Kevin McCadden, a subcontractor for Baltimore Gas & Electric Co., stood outside crime tape placed around the scene of a triple shooting outside a convenience store at West Patapsco Avenue and 5th Street on Feb. 23. Two males, 17 and 18, were shot and a 34-year-old store employee was wounded.

McCadden, 35, moved his family from Lansdowne to Brooklyn about two years ago for affordable rent. He has four kids between the ages of 10 and 16, and has enforced a strict curfew since all the violence has sprung up in the area.

"We bring them in the house at 6 o'clock now, whereas before, with all their friends around, they could walk around with more freedom," he said. "I don't want to be on that side of the tape."

As he stared toward evidence markers, he mulled his next step.

"First year we lived here, it didn't feel like this," he said. "Last year, it's gotten worse. We're looking to move, honestly."

Baltimore Sun reporters Justin Fenton and Kevin Rector contributed to this article.

Twitter.com/justingeorge

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