In Baltimore, 2013 a lost year for fight against violent crime

Police inspect a crime scene on E. 29th Street, east of Kirk Av, where a shooting occurred Thursday, Dec. 19, 2013.

At 1:30 p.m. on a sunny December weekday, just down the hill from prestigious City College high school, shattered glass and blood stained the street.

Neighbors and passersby gathered on the fringes of the crime scene and watched as police officers began investigating the killing of 30-year-old Devlon Cates Jr. Their faces and words showed a mix of dismay and boredom.


"I bet [the killer] was wearing a mask," a young woman said.

The victim "probably didn't even see it coming," her friend surmised. Others waited silently, unable to get to their homes.


Such scenes have grown more common in Baltimore this year. Early Sunday, the city recorded its 234rd homicide, the most in four years. Nonfatal shootings increased after six consecutive years of declines.

Though police blame most of the violence on gangs, the year claimed a range of victims: One-year-old Carter Scott was shot by accident during an attempt on his father's life in Cherry Hill.

Deontae Smith, 15, was fatally stabbed as he left the Ravens' Super Bowl parade. Eighty-year-old John Wood, the inspiration for the 1990s television show "Roc," died after he was punched and hit his head on the ground. And cab driver John Achiampong, 57, a father of five, was killed as he picked up a customer.

Amid the spike — which comes as many other cities have seen a drop in homicides — officials are searching for solutions.

"We're still a much too violent city," Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said. "When you have a homicide rate that is persistently high, it casts a shadow over other progress."

This coming year is in many ways pivotal.

It will mark the second full year for Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts, who recently presented a strategic plan for fighting crime and is working to implement changes across the Police Department. And it is an election year for State's Attorney Gregg Bernstein, who faces at least two challengers in a bid for a second term.

Batts declined to be interviewed for this article. In a statement, he said the Police Department "is not bringing communities the policing that they want and we are going to change that."


Batts said the agency was "stepping out of the dark ages of technology" and would seek to do more predictive policing and better line up resources with crime patterns.

"As we continue to reform the agency and correct inefficiencies, we will better be able to serve the needs of the community and reduce crime in Baltimore," he said in the statement.

Bernstein, whose record has been criticized by campaign opponents, said his office has improved operations under his watch.

"I think we've shown tremendous progress in our investigation and prosecution of the repeat violent offenders," he said.

Gun violence remains down when compared with earlier years. Though some 400 people have been shot and wounded this year, that's less than two-thirds of the 651 who were wounded in 2007. The number of people killed this year was lower than in any year in the 1990s or the first decade of the 2000s.

But if progress is measured by continued declines, 2013 was a lost year. Elsewhere, cities known for similar rates of deadly violence were seeing notable decreases: Homicides were down by 25 percent in Oakland, Calif., by more than 20 percent in New Orleans and by 17 percent in Detroit. Chicago, regularly in the national headlines as the most violent large city, saw a 19 percent decline.


Baltimore, on its way to a year-over-year increase, registered nearly as many gun homicides as New York City, where the population is 13 times larger.

Interviews with community leaders and residents show that few are looking exclusively to police for the answer. Though many believe street-level officers should be more visible and work to strengthen ties in the communities they police, most point to jobs as the only way to reduce gun violence.

"A lot of these cats got dreams — they don't want to do this [drug dealing]," Lawrence Davis, 35, of the Coldstream-Homestead-Montebello neighborhood, said as he looked on at the shooting near City College. "There aren't enough opportunities, and this is all they know."

City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young said police need to boost foot patrols. But he placed much of the blame for the increase in violent crime on the economy.

"Until we're able to create employment opportunities for our citizens in Baltimore, and to address the drug problem that we have in Baltimore, I don't see where we're going to really get out of this," he said.

Police statistics show that total crime dipped slightly, about 2 percent, in 2013. Arrests fell 10 percent, continuing a precipitous drop.


The hardest-hit area of the city this year was West Baltimore. The Western District recorded 43 homicides, the most there since 2003.

Police and prosecutors see progress in the large-scale indictments that have taken suspected gang members and drug crews off the streets. One federal indictment charged 48 alleged Black Guerrilla Family gang members.

Bernstein said those cases represent a "sea change" in the way police and prosecutors work together to tackle drug networks.

"Historically, you didn't have that level of collaboration," he said. "You have to be strategic and you have to be focused."

Prosecutors have combined intelligence from police with conspiracy laws to piece together the cases, Bernstein said. The goal, he said, is to go from neighborhood to neighborhood taking down criminal groups. He said Baltimore should expect more such cases in the coming year.

Bernstein defeated 15-year incumbent Patricia C. Jessamy in 2010. Now defense attorney Russell Neverdon and former prosecutor Marilyn Mosby have announced challenges to Bernstein.


Both say Bernstein hasn't done enough to address what critics call a "revolving door" of offenders moving through the court system. They also have criticized what they say has been a lack of transparency from his office.

Batts came to the Baltimore Police Department from California in late 2012. He has been working to make changes to the agency while grappling with high turnover among the ranks.

He unveiled a strategic plan in November that included a host of recommendations that he says will improve the department over time.

Larry Young, the former state senator who hosts a radio show on WOLB-AM, said he believes the commissioner has the support of the majority of his audience.

"I feel he's certainly got his ears to the ground, and he's out much more than the public perceives," said Young, who has had Batts on his show throughout the year. "If you ask the question, 'Do you believe that the department is doing what it can?' right now, I do give a vote of confidence."

Keisha Allen, president of the Westport Neighborhood Association, said she hopes the Police Department's focus on disrupting gangs will pay off, though it's not a major issue in her neighborhood.


"If you talk about gangs in Westport, they'll laugh," she said.

For Allen and her neighbors, the key issues revolve around blight and a lack of opportunities. She said city officials are too focused on the downtown waterfront and need to focus on bolstering other neighborhoods.

"The southern end needs to be developed," she said. "And maybe if people had jobs they wouldn't do dumb things like steal copper from the light rail."

Darroll Cribb, who leads the Upton neighborhood association, said, "It all boils down to jobs, well-paying jobs for people to not only survive but to be able to live on."

Cates was shot Dec. 19 in the 1500 block of E. 29th St., in front of an address listed for relatives. Police have not provided a motive or arrested a suspect.

At the scene, a dozen officers stood around waiting for the crime lab. A FedEx employee wasn't able to deliver a package on the street. Two groups of men stood farther back, talking among themselves.


Lawrence Davis, standing in front of his home, shook his head.

"Twelve uniformed officers, four detectives, wasting all that manpower," he said.

Davis said drugs fuel all the crime, and spoke of the lack of opportunities for young men.

There was a time, Davis said, that he was involved in the wrong things. He had three siblings and a single mother who worked several jobs.

He wanted nice things, but also needed to cover the basics.

"It took some of my friends dying to say, 'This ain't for me.'" Now he has a young child of his own.


"I have the same dreams every parent has, that my child doesn't have to come up in that environment."

Baltimore Sun reporter Ian Duncan contributed to this article.

Homicides across the country

Oakland, Calif. — down 25 percent (as of Dec. 12)

Philadelphia — down 24 percent (as of Dec. 16)


Flint, Mich. — down 22 percent (as of Dec. 18)

New Orleans — down 22 percent (as of Nov. 14)

Chicago — down 19 percent (as of Dec. 8)

Detroit — down 14.6 percent (as of Dec. 18)

Baltimore — up 8 percent (as of Dec. 24)

Newark, N.J. — up 19 percent (as of Dec. 1)


Washington — up 26 percent (as of Dec. 18)