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Another year starts violently in Baltimore. Roca keeps knocking on doors to try to save lives. | COMMENTARY

DeAndre Chase, 23, left, with Roca work force development specialist Justin Thompson. Chase works for Evergreen Landscape & Design Corp., and has started his own landscaping business. Chase has been with Roca since 2018 and engaged in therapy, education and employment training.
DeAndre Chase, 23, left, with Roca work force development specialist Justin Thompson. Chase works for Evergreen Landscape & Design Corp., and has started his own landscaping business. Chase has been with Roca since 2018 and engaged in therapy, education and employment training. (Kenneth K. Lam)

The gauge we hate but cannot ignore shows that 2021 is already worse than 2020. There were 29 homicides in Baltimore by Wednesday; that’s one more than at the same time last year. All but six of those killings were by gun. On top of that, 51 other people were wounded, and that represents 10 more nonfatal shootings than police recorded by Feb. 3, 2020.

There were no killings on Dec. 8, the day Brandon Scott took office as Baltimore’s new mayor. But there have been 56 homicide victims since then, including the Safe Streets peacemaker Dante Barksdale.

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On Thursday morning, someone shot a federal marshal serving an arrest warrant in a West Baltimore rowhouse. A suspect was killed in the shootout.

The year is off to a terrible start.

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We’ve had six years of terrible starts, and six terrible finishes — at least 300 homicides a year since 2015, more than 2,000 human beings killed by other human beings in that time.

I know: Shootings and killings are not the only way to assess life in Baltimore. I can tell you about the promising scene on the west side of downtown — a new Lexington Market going up, a high-rise apartment building next to it, affordable housing being built just down the street. I could mention the four new technology companies moving to City Garage and Impact Village in South Baltimore. And I could (and should) praise Marvin Tate, a public works supervisor who came to fetch a pile of recyclables from my house after I called 311 to report a missed pickup.

That’s all the good quality-of-life stuff, the big and small ways to measure the progress of the city. Life goes on, even in the second year of a pandemic, the worst public health crisis in a century.

But Baltimore has had a public health crisis for decades the twin combination of heroin addiction and the violence that accompanies its commerce — and it has been compounded by an expanded market for opioids, changes in policing and prosecution, a constant supply of illegal guns and the insanely common use of them to settle scores.

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What I find astounding is how even the constant prosecution of violent criminals and whole gangs by the U.S. Attorney’s Office here seems to make little difference in the numbers of shootings and killings, though I suppose it would be worse if not for the federal cases.

Turns out — is this a consolation? — that Baltimore’s rate of violence has been relatively stable. Other cities have seen increases in homicides. Killings in Milwaukee rose 85% in 2020 while Seattle saw a 63% increase, according to a study released this week from the Council on Criminal Justice, a relatively new think tank based in Washington.

The CCJ study found that killings jumped 55% in Chicago while New York City, which in recent years boasted fewer homicides than Baltimore, saw a 43% increase in 2020.

Now that I’ve laid all that out, you’re probably wondering: Is this ever going to end? Why does it keep happening?

I’ve been over this territory with cops and public health professionals, and I hear different things: Disrupting heroin markets in certain neighborhoods reduces violence for a little while, but the ensuing battle over territory often leads to an escalation in gunfire for months afterward. Guys come home from prison to neighborhoods where old resentments still simmer. Retaliation is a contagion; one shooting often leads to another. And here’s one more explanation: Young guys with guns have little impulse control.

The latter is something the staff of Roca has been working on. This anti-violence program is in its third year in Baltimore, doing the hard work of intervention — trying to save boys and young men, between the ages of 16 and 24, from lives of criminality and failure.

The idea is to identify those at risk of both, get them to think differently, get them on a better track, get them a job.

The first step is the intervention. In 2020, Roca got more aggressive on that front, working in partnership with the Baltimore Police Department to identify victims of nonfatal shootings and knock on their doors within 48 hours. Nonfatal shootings are usually predictors of more violence; a victim one day might be a shooter the next, a shooter one day might end up dead the next.

Preventing gunfire in a city where retaliatory violence is common is tough work. Five of the young men Roca staff contacted in 2020 ended up being killed. Another 10 were victims of nonfatal shootings. Others were incarcerated or just disappeared.

But those who manage to stay with the program, fighting off all the internal and external pressures that put them at risk in the first place, find not only work but constant support. The idea is to develop a new way of thinking, a way of making less impulsive decisions in dealing with the garbage life throws at them.

Roca’s final report for 2020 describes the success of one of its participants, Ben — only his first name was provided — and how he dealt with what the police call a “domestic situation,” a potentially violent argument among relatives.

Ben’s girlfriend’s mother had dressed him down in front of his girlfriend and children. Insulted and angry, his impulse was to roar back.

But Ben drew on what he had learned in therapy sessions, called a Roca staffer for help, went for a walk, cooled off and returned home. (He later did the even more mature thing of asking his girlfriend to stand up for him and maybe go to therapy with him.)

“Ben was able to make a choice that he can be proud of,” the Roca report says, “and move him one step closer to becoming the person he wants to be.”

That’s one small step for a man, but one that needs repeating hundreds of times across our beloved and beleaguered city.

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