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Baltimore approaches 200th homicide for second-straight year

Homicide detectives gathered under a West Baltimore street lamp Wednesday evening and studied a pool of blood from a gunshot wound to the head of a 21-year-old man. As police notified his family and began to canvass the area, a spokesman assigned the victim a number: 199.

It has been two years since Baltimore's yearly homicide count dropped below the symbolic threshold of 200 for the first time in decades. The achievement has proved difficult to repeat. Killings increased last year and are on track to do so again in 2013.

City leaders are quick to point out that other types of crime are falling — and that Baltimore is nowhere close to the levels of violence it saw as recently as 10 years ago. They are also quick to air their frustration as persistent gun violence pushes the murder rate higher.

Four people have been killed this week, including two brothers shot to death in Upper Fells Point.

"We continue to be headed in the wrong direction," said City Councilman Carl Stokes. He said the city spends too much on police and not enough on education, youth services, recreation and parks. "Those numbers correlate to black men getting killed on the street."

Last year, many other cities saw an increase in murders. But according to recent statistics, homicides are down by double-digit percentages in cities such as Detroit, New Orleans, Oakland, Philadelphia, and Chicago.

New York's rate of gun violence has plummeted so much that police there report 160 gun homicides so far this year — a 23 percent decrease from the same period last year. Baltimore has seen almost as many — 158 — despite a population that is a 13th the size of New York's.

The Baltimore shootings continued Wednesday, with two people shot and wounded in the early afternoon in the Old Goucher and Penrose neighborhoods. Homicide detectives were also sent to the 800 block of Appleton St. in West Baltimore for a shooting reported around 6 p.m. Police hadn't yet released the identify of the victims.

Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts said he was disappointed by the number of homicides this year but stressed that all other major crimes — including rape, assaults and robberies — have fallen over two years. He said he is confident that changes within the department would soon lead to a similar shift in murders.

"Any life lost in this city is a horrific issue that takes place," he said. "I'm not so much focused on the numbers but the lives that have been lost in the city."

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said she is disappointed in the homicide count, but sees progress under Batts in areas including the relationships between police and neighborhoods, ministers and small businesses.

"We clearly have to keep working to get that number down and keep our community safer," she said. "We're working on this every day. This is a top priority."

Some critics say Batts, who took over the department in September 2012, has yet to implement a vision for the agency. The department is still awaiting a final report from a consultant hired at the cost of $285,000 in April to come up with a strategic plan for the Police Department that was supposed to take 90 days. Officials say that they have a draft of the report in hand but that it isn't ready for release.

Batts also said the department continues to stabilize and adjust under his command. He has made major leadership changes, installing new deputy commissioners and replacing the commanders in nearly every Baltimore police district.

The commissioner said most 2013 homicide victims have had criminal histories, a point both he and City Council members have repeatedly made this year to argue that Baltimore's violence is limited to people connected to drugs, gangs or prior violence.

The city's homicide count grew to 199 victims this week — surpassing the total from all of 2011. Brothers Karl Berrain, 30, and Kurt Berrain, 25, were shot to death on South Wolfe Street, and a 50-year-old man was gunned down in Oliver.

The shooting of the Berrain brothers shook the Upper Fells Point community, where gun violence is rare. Both were shot in the head before nightfall, around 4:45 p.m., in front of homes in the 200 block of S. Wolfe St.

Attempts to reach family of the Berrain brothers were not successful, but the singer and actress Rye Rye posted on her Twitter account that the men were her cousins. "This world is really crazy! I'm super sad … Praying for my dads side," she wrote.

A Facebook post on Oct. 25 may have foreshadowed the crime.

At 2 a.m. that day, someone wrote that Kurt Berrain had been killed and posted the name and address of the supposed killer for anyone wanting to exact revenge. "We gonna miss him so, so much," the post read.

Homicide detectives were investigating the posting.

Court records show that Kurt Berrain had been involved in domestic troubles. Police have not confirmed a possible motive. City Councilman James B. Kraft said police told him that the Berrain brothers' killing involved "personal relationships" between the victims and the shooter.

Jeff May, president of the Upper Fells Point Improvement Association, said police have recently stepped up enforcement of nuisance or "quality of life" crimes along Broadway, but some think that may be pushing crime into the neighborhood.

Residents gathered behind the crime scene tape on Tuesday evening said there had been a rash of robberies and burglaries.

"In the 20 years I've been here, [crime] had gotten better for a time," May said. "You worry that it's going in the wrong direction."

Kraft, said he believes police officers are working hard to protect neighborhoods like Upper Fells Point, and noted the increased presence on Broadway. But overall, he said, he's not sure what Batts' strategy is to combat violent crime, something he said was crystal clear with Bealefeld and prior commissioners.

"I would like to see a more defined strategy," Kraft said. "It's not all about gangs. … These are young people who are just doing this stuff."

Outside Big Momma's Groceries, a small corner store at Holbrook and East Oliver streets, balloons including one saying "Thinking of you" hung from the side of the building. Kenneth Stowers was gunned down there, about 40 minutes after the Berrain brothers were shot. Stowers had worked at the store for several years.

Stowers was convicted of first-degree murder in 1993, after being charged with beating another man to death with a baseball bat during what was described as an apparent dispute over drugs. He also had recent drug convictions.

A woman who identified herself as Stowers' stepdaughter reopened the store on Wednesday but sat mostly on a chair watching television in a corner of the store as she hung her head in grief. She would not give her name, and declined to say much about her stepfather — only that "he loved the kids."

"When they came here with a penny," she said, "he gave them the 34 cents they needed for a bag of chips."

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