After third year of rampant violence, Baltimore searches wearily for answers

Ciara Green has been to the 3000 block of Rayner Ave. in West Baltimore nearly two dozen times in the last few weeks to try to make sense of the unsolved killing of her best friend.

Darryl Burks Jr., a medical technician whom Green called “Pee Wee,” was found shot to death in a burning vacant rowhouse in late November. Green has returned to post fliers on the block and search for clues. Once she took her father, a retired firefighter, to help search for insights in the ashes.

All she’s found, though, are more gnawing questions.

“For him to die in such a horrific way, to be murdered, your mind goes crazy,” said Green, 24, a Baltimore native who now teaches in New Orleans. “It makes you take a step back and say, ‘This is the city I grew up in?’ ”

Across Baltimore, thousands are grappling with similar questions as the city closes the books on yet another year of extreme violence — its third in a row with more than 300 homicides.

The 2017 count of 343 homicides is the second most in a single year, and the most per capita in city history. The city suffered 353 homicides in 1993, but had about 100,000 more residents.

More than 1,000 people have been killed in Baltimore since the start of 2015.

More than 1,000 people were shot in Baltimore in 2017 alone.

More people were killed in 2017 in Baltimore, population 615,000, than in New York City, population 8.5 million. New York experienced fewer than 300 killings in 2017 — a record low, continuing a nearly three-decade decline in violence in that city.

Baltimore, in contrast, is hemorrhaging blood, and it’s far from clear that better times are on the way. Even those whose job it is to help Baltimore turn the corner are reluctant to speak too optimistically about 2018. Asked where Baltimore is headed, officials suggested that programs and initiatives started under their leadership in 2017 are beginning to pay dividends and will continue to do so in 2018.

“It’s like sitting on a keg of dynamite,” Mayor Catherine Pugh said. “If we don’t fix it, it will all explode.”

“We’re right here in the eye of the storm,” said Police Commissioner Kevin Davis. “I think you have to just keep walking through it until you get through it.”

“We are experiencing a new dimension of societal fracture in our city,” State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby said. “We have to come together to figure that out.”

The homicide spike dates to the April 2015 death of Freddie Gray in police custody, and the unrest that followed.

Other crime, including shootings, robberies, aggravated assaults, burglary and carjackings, has also surged. Arrests, meanwhile, have dropped off, and the federal indictments of the corrupt Gun Trace Task Force this year have led to a sharp decline in gun seizures as well.

Mosby’s office has dropped hundreds of cases that relied on the testimony of the indicted detectives, and of officers who have appeared in body-camera footage that defense attorneys have suggested shows them planting drugs.

Baltimore has been working with the U.S. Department of Justice on sweeping police reforms under a federal consent decree. The national opioid epidemic has hit the city hard — overdose deaths, fueled by the rise of the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl, are causing twice as many deaths as bullets. And law enforcement say the crisis is igniting new, deadly drug turf battles in the city.

The Baltimore Police Department has just under 2,100 full-duty officers. Pugh said the city should have 3,000. She called the shortfall “devastating.”

Officials have worked to shorten the recruiting process, but Pugh said getting new cops onto the street remains difficult.

Davis said Pugh hasn't “gotten enough credit for bringing her city agencies together every morning at eight o'clock” to discuss how each can assist in the crime fight. He said the Violence Reduction Initiative is “fundamentally improving how government is delivered to poor, violent communities in a way it's never been delivered before,” and “even though the results are early,” crime is down everywhere the program is being implemented.

“So you have to stick with that, and you have to find ways to expand it,” he said.

Mosby said her prosecutors are doing their jobs to "ensure that we're going after these violent repeat offenders" while considering more holistic approaches for youth and drug offenders who deserve second chances. She said her office has struggled to fight witness intimidation and get the community to cooperate with investigators.

Pugh, Davis and Mosby can each list several other programs that they believe will help reduce crime: special units to go after gun offenders, new technologies for police officers, outside consultants to provide wraparound services to youth offenders, more funding for the violence reduction program Safe Streets.

The crime has continued nonetheless.

The vast majority of homicide victims in 2017 were young black men, though the average age of those victims trended upward from past years. The Eastern District overtook the Western District as the deadliest in the city. Many of the shootings occurred outdoors. Many were during the day. Some were drive-bys. Others were shots to the head from close range. Others were merciless robberies.

Bartenders at popular establishments in neighborhoods ordinarily considered safe were killed, as was a toddler at a day-care facility and a man in his 90s in his longtime home. A man was killed in a barbershop in East Baltimore, a husband was stabbed to death, allegedly by his wife, inside Johns Hopkins Hospital, and an alleged drug kingpin was gunned down in Canton.

Two 15-year-old boys were killed in separate shootings in the Harlem Park neighborhood of West Baltimore. A Baltimore homicide detective investigating a triple homicide from 2016 was shot to death in the same neighborhood. An off-duty District of Columbia police sergeant was also killed in Baltimore, making two unsolved police killings in the city in 2017.

A 19-year-old man and a 17-year-old boy died in the firebombing of a home on Greenmount Avenue that also left two women and four children injured. A man was killed on a Circulator bus. A mother of eight was gunned down for trying to protect her bullied son.

Excel Academy, a high school that provides second chances for troubled or vulnerable youth, lost five students to shootings during the last academic year. It lost a sixth in October and a seventh in November.

Stefon Cook, 20, had been at the school for only a month when he was shot in November. He was returning to the school system after having dropped out.

Principal Tammatha Woodhouse said Cook seemed intent on getting his diploma this time around. He was attending classes, and was quickly endearing himself to staff and fellow students in the school community.

“We knew him and we knew him in a good light,” Woodhouse said.

Like many others, Woodhouse said, she had moments in 2017 when she felt she couldn't go on — when it all seemed too much.

“I remember having the conversation with my supervisor like, ‘I don’t know if I can do this anymore.’ And he was like, ‘Well, who’s going to do it if you can’t?’ ”

Woodhouse said she decided to stick it out for the kids — but she believes more support is needed. Her school is getting a new counseling program that will set safe spaces for kids to vent their emotions, she said, but more still needs to be done in job training and certification.

“These are young folks who are independent, taking care of themselves and have to survive in an environment that’s not so welcoming to young folks,” Woodhouse said. “How as a city do we look at them and ensure that they have economic resources and make sure that they have some stake in the game as it relates to Baltimore?”

Marvin McDowell, founder of UMAR Boxing in Druid Heights, lost two young boxers to street violence in 2017. The year, he said, was “tough.”

But he is optimistic that things will change, he said, in part because he has seen Pugh pay attention to — and support — grassroots efforts to stem the violence within local organizations like his.

“As long as we are open and able to be in a community to change these kids’ minds and hearts and let them see there are things better than gangs, then we can change Baltimore block by block for the better,” McDowell said.

Rikki Vaughn believes the same.

Vaughn’s brother Vasunlala Irvin, 41, was killed in September, by what Vaughn believes was a stray bullet fired during an argument over a dice game down the block. Police have described it as a double shooting in which a 50-year-old man also was wounded, but have declined to provide more details.

The case has been closed, but only because police say the man responsible was shot to death himself in November — one of many “closed by exception” cases that helped boost the department’s homicide clearance rate for 2017 above 50 percent.

Vaughn said his brother wasn’t perfect, but was trying to do better, helping their mother get to medical appointments and assisting Vaughn at some of his local restaurant franchises.

Irvin was also helping Vaughn with the launch of his campaign to challenge Sen. Ben Cardin this year.

Since Irvin’s death, Vaughn said, he has increased his campaign’s focus on addressing gun violence in the city and providing job opportunities to youth offenders.

“In order to make change, you have to get involved in the process,” he said. “I’m optimistic.”

Erricka Bridgeford, an organizer of the citizen-led Baltimore Ceasefire movement, said the landmark violence of 2017 was an eye-opener that could serve the community moving forward.

“We saw a lot of people waking up to how violence is impacting people every single day,” she said. “People who were numb to it because they were tired of feeling it woke up and started dealing with it. And people who thought it didn’t affect them woke up and realized it affects all of us.

“We met the worst with our best.”

Ciara Green said she doesn’t know what 2018 will bring. But she will keep searching for answers for her friend.

Burks, 25, graduated with Green from Carver Vocational-Technical High School in 2011, she said, and later earned an associate’s degree and a medical technician’s certificate.

He “wasn’t no corner boy. He wasn’t no drug boy. He wasn’t one of those people who was in the streets,” she said. “Pee Wee wanted to get out of Baltimore. He went to work. He had a job.”

Green said she refuses to let Pee Wee become just another number. He was always so full of life, she said, so unapologetically himself, so fearless and proud — she isn’t about to let him be forgotten.

“Is anything going to happen?” she asked. “Is anybody going to find out what happened? Are they going to sweep it under the rug?

“This is real. We’ve lost somebody who meant a lot to us. Our days are hard.”

krector@baltsun.com

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