Would Ceasefire have stopped Purple Horton?

Compared to the way the year started — 16 homicides in the first 12 days of January and 27 for the month — February has been quiet in Baltimore. We went more than a week without a single shooting.

But given 2014's bloody start, the year-over-year increase in homicides in 2013 and the general exasperation in a city that keeps trying to get to a better place, a brief break in the action provides little reassurance.

The big question lingers: Is there any hope of getting the homicide count down significantly, and in a lasting way?

The latest push is for intervention — heading off trouble with hyper-focus on the relatively small number of people and groups known to be violent and likely to commit crimes. Central to the strategy: "call-in" sessions where the usual suspects (many of them probationers and parolees) get a strong warning about the consequences of continued criminality from police, prosecutors, clergy and community leaders.

This is what criminologist David Kennedy's Operation Ceasefire has been doing effectively in several cities for a couple of decades — but notably, and unfortunately, not in Baltimore.

Until now.

Here's hoping Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake really gives police Commissioner Anthony Batts the resources and support needed for full commitment to the Ceasefire strategy. Without an all-in, it won't be easy in a city that has been too long one of the most violent in the nation.

Last week, I looked into a January 2013 homicide case and wondered: Could Ceasefire have stopped Ricky "Purple" Horton from shooting three people, killing one of them?

Before he was arrested last year on a first-degree murder charge, the worst thing on Horton's record was a second-degree assault in April 2007, when he was 20 years old. According to the Baltimore state's attorney's office and Maryland court records, Horton faced drug charges in 2006 and 2008. His sentences were relatively light or suspended.

Then, last Jan. 13, Horton stalked and ambushed two men after closing time at a late-night club on North Avenue. He shot his girlfriend of a month, too; she survived the attack and testified at Horton's trial in Baltimore Circuit Court a couple of weeks ago.

It's not clear what motivated Horton to hunt down his first two victims, Sean Rhodes and Rudy Hyman. The detectives who worked this case, Robert Ross and Sgt. Richard Purtell, found no connection between the shooter and his male victims.

According to testimony, Horton shot and killed Rhodes at close range after Rhodes and Hyman stepped out of the club with their girlfriends. Hyman, who survived a face wound, was able to provide a description of the shooter, as did other witnesses.

Six blocks from the club, Horton caught up with his girlfriend, Tia Grannison. He shot her in the stomach, then in the face as she lay on the ground. Grannison heard Horton say, "If you're not blood, you're going to die," before he again fired his revolver.

She testified she had heard Horton speak of shooting Rhodes that night. Prosecutors said Horton shot her in an attempt to eliminate her as a witness.

Convicted of first-degree murder, Horton faces life in prison. He'll be sentenced in April.

Back to my question: Could Operation Ceasefire have made a difference in a case that looks on its face so insane and random?

Horton had no recent criminal history to suggest that he should have been listed as a "citizen of concern" with police, or that he required "enhanced supervision" by the state Division of Parole and Probation.

So, even if Ceasefire had been in place here, would police have summoned him to one of the program's signature "call-ins" for a lecture and a warning? It seems to me there would have been a long line of more likely candidates ahead of him — men with documented ties to gangs, for instance.

I asked Kennedy about this on Friday. Could a Ceasefire intervention have prevented the shootings of Hyman and Grannison and the murder of Rhodes? Kennedy said there's "a very strong likelihood" it could have.

Without attending a call-in, someone with even loose ties to a violent group would still hear Ceasefire's central messages: Put down your guns. There's help available if you chose to get out of the life. There are serious consequences if you don't.

"The core logic of Ceasefire is that the violence is driven by groups — gangs, drug crews, little neighborhood sets," Kennedy said. "Most group-involved violence is still personal — it's not ordered by the group, or about protecting [the group's] money. It's mostly about 'respect.'"

The idea of Ceasefire is to change the behavior of the groups involved in violence. The call-in sessions make the stop-the-killing messaging easier.

"We call group-involved probationers and parolees in and say, 'Take what you hear today and take it back to your group,' Kennedy said. "And we know that they do. That's why the approach works."


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