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26 killings in 25 days: Baltimore police search for solutions to year's lethal start

In Baltimore, 26 people have been killed in the first 25 days of 2017.

As Baltimore struggles with a deadly start to the year, the mayor and police commissioner on Wednesday called on help from the community, other city agencies, prosecutors and even the president to help slow a pace of one homicide a day.

Twenty-six people have been killed in the year's first 25 days. Police Commissioner Kevin Davis tried to assure residents that the department is doing everything it can, allocating more officers to patrol and redeploying gang and other special units to areas of the city where violence is the worst.

"We're all very aware of the violence plaguing our city," Davis said at a wide-ranging news conference at police headquarters. "We absolutely acknowledge and condemn the violence occurring in the city of Baltimore."

According to the most recent police crime statistics, total shootings are up 44 percent compared to this time last year, while homicides are up 50 percent for the period. Carjackings, a major problem for police in 2016, are up more than 60 percent. There have been at least 39 reported carjackings in 2017.

Baltimore's most recent homicides came Wednesday.

In East Baltimore around 3:15 p.m., officers found a man at the intersection of North Patterson Park Avenue and East Preston Street with fatal gunshot wounds. At 8 p.m. officers found a man with gunshot wounds in the 100 block of S. Conkling St. He died at a hospital.

"This is not the new normal," Davis said. "We continue to fight out of the place we're in."

During her weekly news briefing Wednesday, Mayor Catherine Pugh said the city's violence problem extended beyond the Police Department's control. She called on the black community to find solutions to the killings, the victims of which are overwhelmingly African-American.

"This is not about just policing," Pugh said. "It's about community. When you think about people walking into a barbershop and shooting people point-blank. ... There's something terribly wrong going on in our communities that people think it's OK to pick up a gun, shoot people and kill people."

The past two years have seen an unusual surge in violent crime that traces back to the unrest that followed the death of Freddie Gray from injuries sustained in the back of a police van in April 2015. The number of homicides in Baltimore jumped from 211 in 2014 to 344 in 2015 — the most per capita in the city's history.

Last year, Baltimore ended the year with 318 homicides. Many major cities have also seen increases in violent crime, most dramatically in Chicago, which had 762 homicides last year.

President Donald Trump suggested Tuesday on Twitter that he might send in "the feds" to help Chicago. Davis was asked Wednesday whether he thought Trump could help here. The commissioner said if he had "30 seconds" in an elevator with the president, he would ask him to double the number of federal law enforcement agents in Baltimore. He would also ask Trump to send more prosecutors to the U.S. attorney's office to help with city crime.

In a report issued Wednesday, an association of police chiefs of the nation's major cities also called for more federal resources to combat a surge in violent crime nationally.

As for what his own agency is doing, Davis broadly outlined a strategy where police are focusing resources where crime is worst and closely monitoring 132 "trigger pullers" — persons of interest detectives believe are responsible for shootings or homicides. Davis intimated that many of those trigger pullers might be under arrest in other jurisdictions.

Davis said he would like to revisit a long-standing "handshake agreement" his department has with prosecutors that requires detectives to check with the state's attorney's office before they arrest homicide and attempted homicide suspects. Such an agreement is uncommon.

The agreement was made because too many cases were being dropped by prosecutors within months of suspects being charged. Some felt police were making premature or wrongful arrests, while others argued that prosecutors were not doing enough to secure convictions.

Davis said detectives believe that if they could jail more suspects under a lower threshold of proof, fearful witnesses would be more likely to cooperate with police, strengthening the case in the end.

Asked about the agreement, a top aide to Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby said that Mosby has requested a meeting with Davis to discuss driving down violent crime.

"As always, we will work cooperatively with the Baltimore Police Department," Rhoda Washington, Mosby's chief of external affairs, said in a statement.

Davis also said officers have been encountering an unusually high number of juveniles during carjacking or stolen car investigations who were in the company of older males. He said young adults are "preying" on juveniles, persuading them to commit major crimes knowing the "apathetic" criminal justice system will be lenient in its punishment.

He said parents need to be more aware of whom their children are associating with and whether they are going to school. All city agencies need to help provide struggling parents and families with all types of assistance, Davis said.

He said representatives of those agencies would be special guests Thursday at a weekly meeting of police commanders to discuss city crime trends.

"The reality is these kids are growing up in situations that most of us don't," said Lt. Col. Osborne Robinson, chief of patrol.

Pugh authorized the department last week to hire 100 officers to fill positions that her predecessor had frozen to save money. Police are now looking to hire 226 officers in all to help cover patrol shortages.

"We've got to get a handle on this. This is outrageous to me," Pugh said of the violence. "We're killing our own people in our own streets. We have a problem."

Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.

jgeorge@baltsun.com

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