Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake talks about the recent uptick in violence in Baltimore City. (Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun)
Hours after Baltimore's mayor huddled with police officials to discuss the recent spike in violence, two more people were killed Monday — making May the city's deadliest month since 1999.
The two homicides increased this month's total to 35. There have been 108 homicides across the city this year.
"It's deplorable," said City Councilman William "Pete" Welch. "The shootings and killings are all over the city. I don't think any part of the city is immune to this. I've never seen anything like it."
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is "disheartened and frustrated by this continuing violence, particularly when you think about the progress that the city has made," said her spokesman, Howard Libit.
The mayor met for nearly two hours Sunday with Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts and members of his command staff about adjustments police are making. "She is confident that the steps being taken by the Police Department will quell this latest uptick in violence," Libit said.
Batts wrote a letter to community leaders and elected officials Monday, telling them he has reassigned "several veteran leaders" to the city's Western District, including a new commander and captain. He said he's asking officers to maintain "a visible and consistent presence" in the community. He also assigned Lt. Col. Melvin Russell, who commands the Police Department's Community Partnership Division, to work out of the Western District to improve relations with residents.
In the letter, Batts said the city is "in the midst of a challenging time. ... Please be assured that the Baltimore Police Department is moving aggressively to both address the increase inviolence, as well [as] to modernize and better equip ourselves for the future."
In addition to the homicides, eight other people were shot since late Sunday and another three overnight Monday, bringing the number of shootings over the three-day holiday weekend to 32. Among them was a 9-year-old boy shot in the leg in the 2900 block of Arunah Ave. in Southwest Baltimore. Police did not identify any of victims or release information about any potential suspects or motives.
Diane Brooks, 61, was sound asleep Monday in her quiet North Baltimore neighborhood when gunfire rang out — leaving two injured and one dead just yards away.
Across town an hour earlier, another man was killed near Yvonne Gunn's house in West Baltimore's Poppleton neighborhood. She was awakened by the "boom-boom-boom" sound of the shots, she said, adding that she was too afraid to look outside.
"Of course it makes me scared," said Gunn, 67. "I started praying. I didn't move. ... The drugs have escalated in this block in the last six months. With this new drug element in the block — oh, Lord."
The first of the overnight homicides occurred at 12:29 a.m. Monday in the 800 block of W. Fayette St. According to police, officers found a man inside a car suffering from gunshot wounds. They then located a second victim, a woman who was shot in the back, lying in the street. Both were transported to an area hospital for treatment.
The man died of his injuries at 2:38 am. The woman was listed in critical but stable condition.
The killing occurred in the Poppleton neighborhood, which is the proposed home of a major redevelopment effort. The City Council is considering a $58 million subsidy for a New York-based developer to build 13.8-acre mixed-used project there that includes apartments, parks and a new school near the Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum.
The afternoon after the homicide, children and adults enjoyed a block party not far from where the shooting occurred.
"This block used to be beautiful," Gunn said. "Out back, the kids are running and playing. It is really nice. But out front on Fayette Street, people are running for the drugs."
She said drug dealing is now commonplace in Poppleton, but she rarely sees police officers on her block doing anything about it.
"There are groups of people who come here and buy drugs. It's all day long. And nobody sees it but us," Gunn said. "I don't see the police in this neighborhood. They don't come here. It's rare to even see them ride through."
She said homeowners are losing value in their properties, making it impossible to leave if they want to.
"I want to move, but where can I go? What money could I get for this house?" she said.
Welch, who is urging the council to back the proposed development in Poppleton, said he is worried the violence will deter outsiders from investing.
"I don't know what the cause of this increase in violence is," he said. "I know that drug dealers set up in communities where they think no one is going to pay attention. This is killing the city. I can't attract a developer to come in with the amount of violence that's going on."
The second of Monday's killings occurred at 1:43 a.m., when officers responded to the 5300 block of St. Georges Ave. in the Kenilworth Park neighborhood for a report of a shooting. Upon arrival, they found a man with gunshot wounds to his chest and leg. He was taken to an area hospital, where he died of his injuries, police said.
While police were investigating that incident, a 17-year-old boy walked into an area hospital seeking treatment for a gunshot wound to his arm, and another man was hospitalized with a graze wound to his head, police said. Detectives believe all three injuries were the result of the same incident.
Brooks said the violence, which occurred just outside her home, is unusual for her neighborhood, which is generally quiet. "If it were something that happened all the time, I would be afraid. But I'm just surprised more than anything," she said.
However, she said, nearby there is a corner that is notorious for drug dealing, and neighbors are frequently bothered by young men riding dirt bikes.
"The police have tried, but they're still out there on the corners every day," Brooks said.
Councilman Bill Henry, who represents the area, said until young men in Baltimore are able to get jobs, the violence will persist.
"We're continuing to see the results of a generation of disinvestment in the human capital of Baltimore," he said. "The underground economy is more attractive when the aboveground economy isn't built for you. The drug trade is much more attractive when you don't have access to any other type of job."
He said paying more and more for police isn't the answer.
"We shouldn't be paying for the police to drive by every half an hour to move them along," Henry said. "Paying the police $400 million to move them along isn't accomplishing anything more than pouring $400 million down a hole. If we are not willing to acknowledge that, then we are just fooling ourselves."
Batts last week said police are struggling to stop violence in West Baltimore, where officers have been routinely surrounded by dozens of people, video cameras and hostility while performing basic police work since the death of Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old who died after suffering a spinal cord injury while in police custody. The Western District, the site of Gray's arrest and the epicenter of the protests and rioting that followed his death, has seen the majority of the city's recent shootings and homicides, which are coming faster than they have in eight years.
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Six officers are charged criminally in Gray's death. Some police officers have said they feel hesitant on the job under intense public scrutiny. Arrests are down significantly this month. Through the first half of May, officers have made fewer than half the arrests they did during the same time last year.
On Friday, the director and another member of Rawlings-Blake's criminal justice office left their jobs, marking the biggest shake-up in her administration since the recent rioting and unrest in the city. Their departures came a few weeks after the director of the city's anti-violence initiative, Operation Ceasefire, left his job voluntarily.
Throughout the 1990s, Baltimore saw more than 300 homicides every year. The death toll dropped to 253 in 2002 under then-Mayor Martin O'Malley — who instituted a tough-on-crime policing approach called "zero tolerance" — before rising to 282 in 2007, prompting then-Mayor Sheila Dixon to replace Police Commissioner Leonard Hamm with Frederick H. Bealefeld III midyear.
Under Rawlings-Blake, the city reached its modern low of 197 homicides in 2011 with Bealefeld as commissioner.