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Two homicides Monday continue torrid pace of violence, as residents question city response

A violent weekend in Baltimore spills into Monday, with two more reported fatally shot.

A day after city and law enforcement leaders announced a new plan to combat a surge in violent crime, the killings and shootings continued Monday, leaving residents skeptical that anything they do will turn the tide.

"It's a war zone down here," said Thomas Ferguson, 26, a lifelong resident of North Belnord Avenue, where a man was shot in the head in broad daylight Monday.

The violent weekend spilled into the new week with the killing on North Belnord in the Madison-Eastend neighborhood and another on Cardenas Avenue in Belair-Edison, where police said a man was shot several times.

That brought the number of shootings since Friday to at least 25 and homicides to 11. Police on Monday identified several of the weekend's homicides, but have not announced any arrests.

Twenty-three people have been killed in Baltimore this month, putting the city on pace to eclipse the number of 42 killed in May — the city's deadliest month in 25 years.

City and police officials offered few new details Monday about the 24-hour "war room" they announced Sunday. They said police, prosecutors and federal law enforcement partners are working together to target and build cases against violent repeat offenders.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and interim Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said they would schedule community meetings to address violence soon, but answered questions about the war room's first day of operations Monday only in vague terms, repeating the importance of putting investigative partners together in the same room.

"Already today — and you'll hear about some of these successes in coming days — we've been able to put pieces of this [crime] puzzle together," Davis said. "You can't put a puzzle together, right — literally put a puzzle together — unless you're in the same room looking at all the pieces. …

"We're in the midst of a violent-crime crisis and we can't do business as usual. The war room is not business as usual, and it's going to be effective for the city."

In neighborhoods that have seen some of the recent killings, some people asked whether the "war room" approach will have any impact.

"Sounds good, but you won't know unless you see some results," said Anthony Estes, 55. He lives on North Durham Street, one block north of Federal Street, where two people were shot to death over the weekend.

"Show action. There's always talk," Estes said. "It seems every time they say something about [addressing crime], six, seven months later there's nothing going on. It's the same thing."

Tiara Wilson, 29, was visiting her aunt on the block. She lives on North Caroline Street — scene of another fatal shooting over the weekend.

"We have a police on the corner for a day or two, and then everything go back to normal, so it's not like it's helping any," she said.

Violence in the city has surged since the death of Freddie Gray in April, the protests and riots that followed, and the charges announced against six police officers involved in his arrest and transport.

Nonfatal shootings have nearly doubled, from 165 at this time last year to 320 this year. Robberies were up 15 percent as of June 27, the last date numbers were available. Police said overall violent crime was up 5 percent.

When Rawlings-Blake and law enforcement officials announced the "war room" plan on Sunday, they promised to build cases against violent repeat offenders and throw them behind bars before they can cause more harm.

"We are essentially declaring war on those individuals with no code of ethics killing women and killing children," said Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby. "We are going to war, and we're going to do it collaboratively."

Wilson said such messages mean little when youths in Baltimore lack constructive outlets for their energy.

"Jobs not hiring. You don't have anywhere for these kids to go. Recreation centers closed. What do you expect them to do?" she asked. "That's why the crime rate is high right now. These kids don't have anything to do. The streets are taking these babies. They're out here starting at 13."

Aides to the mayor said Monday that she intends to announce a $100 million, multiyear investment in city recreation and parks on Tuesday.

On North Belnord Avenue, Helen Hamilton, 50, watched as detectives combed the crime scene and placed evidence markers near a pool of blood on the street.

"It's terrible. We go through this every other day and nothing ever happens," Hamilton said.

Ferguson was similarly pessimistic.

"As long as there are drugs and territories, it's gonna be like this," he said.

The reasons for the surge in violence are unclear. Baltimore police have not described any trends they have identified or leads they are following.

Police union leaders and rank-and-file officers have said officers feel hesitant to make arrests after Mosby charged the officers in Gray's arrest and death. The number of arrests plummeted after the riots.

Other cities across the country have seen similar increases in crime. Homicides in St. Louis are up nearly 60 percent compared to last year, while killings in Milwaukee have nearly doubled. New York and Chicago have also seen increases.

Other cities continue to experience declines. Philadelphia, with more than twice Baltimore's population, once regularly saw more than 400 homicides a year. But the city has seen its homicide numbers drop steadily, to 128 as of Sunday night, compared to Baltimore's 166.

Officials in Baltimore have acknowledged the surge — and have made some arrests in recent weeks, they said.

Davis, named interim commissioner by Rawlings-Blake last week after she fired Anthony W. Batts, has outlined several changes he intends to make within the department to improve its responsiveness to crime.

Davis said he wants to bring the department's special investigation units under a "singular command structure so there's clarity in their mission," and plans to discuss the restructuring of patrol shifts with union officials.

The police union said last week that the department's intelligence-gathering efforts had languished in recent years. The union pointed specifically to the criminal intelligence section, which it said has lost manpower.

"Sadly, the Baltimore Police Criminal Intelligence Section has lost personnel and has been allowed to weaken," the union said in an after-action review of the department's response to the riots. "Ironically, as gangs like the Black Guerrilla Family continued to grow in Baltimore, the Criminal Intelligence Section continued to shrink."

Under Batts, the operations section of the department, previously under the direction of one deputy commissioner, was divided in two, with a deputy chief for patrol officers, and a deputy chief overseeing intelligence. Davis was hired in January to lead the intelligence bureau.

It remained unclear Monday what exactly was new about the plans to bring multiple agencies together and target violent offenders.

As recently as June, police and federal officials were promoting their close working relationship with federal agencies in announcing fresh indictments against members of the Black Guerrilla Family.

The state's attorney's office has long promoted a strategy of targeting "violent repeat offenders" in conjunction with police and said assistant state's attorneys were dispatched to crime scenes to become engaged in investigations at the ground floor.

Mosby has spoken of a "Crime Strategies Unit" that "utilizes technology, data-analysis, and intelligence-gathering to identify trends in crime, focus in on the offenders driving that crime, and target those offenders for enforcement."

Rawlings-Blake said Monday that it is "totally understandable" that community residents are skeptical that her administration's new approach to crime is any different from past approaches.

"That being said, there is a clear difference," she said, "because everyone that's in the crime fight at every level is making a commitment to be in the same room at the same time sharing information and acting on that information."

Then she cautioned: "I want you to understand that while I'm very optimistic about that, I'm not living through rose-colored glasses. I know that they need to see progress."

On Monday afternoon, Verna Strawder stood just beyond a yellow strip of police tape marking the edge of the Cardenas Avenue murder scene, waiting to talk to a detective.

Strawder, 71, was at a laundromat near the scene, she said, when she got a call from her grandson's girlfriend.

The girlfriend told her it was her grandson who'd been shot.

"I'm not surprised," Strawder said, who believes her grandson is dead. "He's out there in that world. I can't hold up for him."

Police have not released the name of the victim.

This is Baltimore today, Strawder said: a violent city that will catch up to you if you operate on its streets too long.

"We don't come from a violent family, but this is everyday life," she said. "The police can't do but so much."

Kevin Robinson, 51, who lives on North Durham St. — between the locations of two weekend killings — said he doesn't expect the street to change anytime soon, no matter what the mayor says. So he just minds his business.

"I play it close to home because I have a 1-year-old and a 2-year-old," he said. "I only go in the street to go to the store. I'm not in these streets. I'm in that house."

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Update

July 14, 2015: 1:26 p.m., updates the number of homicide from the weekend to reflect a clerical error by Baltimore Police. Eleven people died between Friday and Monday. There have been 23 people killed in July.

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