'Neighborhoods are crying out': Baltimore has highest homicide rate of U.S. big cities

Baltimore had the worst homicide rate among the nation’s 50 largest cities last year and the second-highest violent crime rate overall, according to new data from the FBI.

The grim news was the latest reminder of the sustained cycle of violence that has gripped the city since 2015, when the annual number of homicides soared above 300 for three consecutive years after the unrest that followed Freddie Gray’s death from injuries suffered in police custody.

There were 342 homicides in Baltimore last year, 56 per 100,000 people who live in the city. That’s the highest per capita in the city’s history and, according to the FBI report Monday, the highest rate of any American city with more than 500,000 people. It’s also significantly higher than the rate in other big cities.

“Sometimes it does seem, I won’t say hopeless, but there are neighborhoods that are crying out,” said Councilman John Bullock, whose West and Southwest Baltimore district has seen some of the worst violence.

Mayor Catherine Pugh said Tuesday that she has been attempting to curb the killings by attacking the root causes of poverty and lack of opportunity that fuel the violent drug trade. So far this year, the number of killings is down 15 percent from last year.

“Our efforts to reduce violent crime are producing clear results,” Pugh said. “Crime is declining in every category.”

Pugh said even greater gains have been recorded in neighborhoods she has tagged as part of a Violence Reduction Initiative. Such areas receive a surge of city resources, ranging from fixing street lights to employment services.

“We are not satisfied and are determined to reduce crime and violence much more,” Pugh said. “One murder in Baltimore is one murder too many. But I am convinced that by addressing the root causes that give rise to hopelessness and eventually to criminal activity, we will make Baltimore safer for all residents.”

Detroit, which had the highest overall violent crime rate for 2017, ranked No. 2 in homicides, with 40 per 100,000 people. Memphis, Tenn., followed (28 homicides per 100,000), then Chicago (24 per 100,000), Philadelphia (20 per 100,000) and Milwaukee (20 per 100,000). The FBI defines violent crime as a combination of murder and non-negligent manslaughter, rape, robbery and aggravated assault.

So far this year, there have been 216 homicides in Baltimore.

Republican Gov. Larry Hogan called the FBI data “shocking and disappointing, but it doesn’t come as a complete surprise.”

Hogan said a joint operation with city and state police and the U.S. Marshals Service this year resulted in hundreds of arrests of violent offenders — including 259 of the city’s “most violent criminals.” He noted tougher sentencing laws the General Assembly passed this year for repeat offenders take effect Monday.

Violence in Baltimore is “something we’ve been focused on from day one,” Hogan said. “We just passed some tough, new crime laws that are going to take effect Oct. 1, tougher sentences for people who commit gun crimes, tougher sentences on repeat violent offenses. I’ve been criticizing judges for lenient sentences and letting repeat violent offenders out.”

Despite this year’s declines, the governor called crime in Baltimore a “problem that's not going away.”

“The city’s got to invest more,” Hogan said. “The mayor’s got to be more focused. We’re going to continue to back them up as much as we possibly can.”

Hogan’s Democratic challenger, former NAACP President Ben Jealous, said he didn’t want to blame any individual leader for the crime problem. Jealous said killings in jurisdictions outside the city also have risen, by an average of 34 percent.

If elected governor, Jealous said, he would help bring crime down by funding more violence-intervention programs like Safe Streets, which employs ex-offenders to mediate disputes, and by providing funds for city police to bolster their homicide investigations.

“New York has brought down crime substantially by scaling up violence intervention programs,” Jealous said.

The data are presented in the 2017 edition of the FBI’s annual Crime in the United States report, which relies on statistics reported by local law enforcement agencies.

Rather than comparing this year’s crime decline to 2017, City Councilman Brandon Scott argued, city officials should look to 2014. That’s the last year when fewer than 300 people were killed in Baltimore.

Scott, who chairs the Council’s Public Safety Committee, said the current levels of violence can’t be accepted.

“The new normal should be the opposite,” he said. “The new normal should be us beating those record levels we saw a few years ago.”

While Baltimore topped the murder per capita list for the biggest cities in 2017, some smaller cities reported an even higher homicide rate than Baltimore. St. Louis, which has a population of just over 300,000, had 205 homicides — a rate of 66 per 100,000 people.

Worse yet, East St. Louis, Ill., a city of fewer than 27,000 people, had 30 homicides, a rate of 111 per 100,000.

In Maryland, the deadliest city included in the FBI data is District Heights in Prince George’s County. The city of 6,000 people had four homicides last year, a rate equal to St. Louis’.

The violent crime rate across the nation decreased nearly 1 percent when compared with 2016 data, the FBI said. Additionally, the rate of property crimes declined by 3.6 percent.

Officials disagree about the causes of the rise in crime that began in 2015, but many analysts have pointed to the death of Gray in April that year as marking a significant shift. Police activity declined in the aftermath and a heightened cycle of killings began. In 2015, Baltimore recorded its previous highest per capita murder rate with 55.2 killings per 100,000 residents.

In a speech last week, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions cast blame on a consent decree that requires the Baltimore Police to respect people’s constitutional rights. Scott questioned that conclusion and said that policing methods previously employed in Baltimore led to abuses such as those by the Gun Trace Task Force, whose members were convicted in federal court of robberies.

“I want our police officers out there dealing with the most violent people, people who are disrupting neighborhoods,” Scott said. He said that’s a goal city residents share, “but they want that done in a professional and constitutional manner.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Christina Tkacik contributed to this article.

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