Soan Evans prays on Gertrude Court in the place known as "Chocolate… (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore…)
Heading into the first official weekend of summer, Baltimore police officials were pleased with how crime was trending, and, it seemed, so were residents. Total crime was down and though killings continued at one of the highest rates in the nation, there had been few dramatic spikes to draw the attention of this crime-weary city.
But a tidal wave of violence — about 40 people shot and 16 killed in the past 10 days — has shaken the city.
"We are at crisis level," said City Councilman Nick Mosby, who represents areas on the city's west side hit particularly hard by recent violence. "It's not going to get better with business-as-usual procedures."
The ongoing violence — three more shootings, one of them fatal, occurred Saturday — is calling attention once again to Baltimore's homicide rate and gun violence problem, which had been in decline in recent years. Last year, however, the number of people killed in Baltimore increased 10 percent. And at the midpoint of 2013 the number of homicides — 117 — is the highest in six years, raising questions about whether the city is backsliding.
Other cities have seen a similar trend, though crime rates have dropped significantly in Washington, New York and Dallas. Last year, violent crime rose in the United States for the first time in six years, with the largest increases occurring in cities like Baltimore with populations between 500,000 and 1 million, where homicides increased 12 percent. Among cities in that population range, Oklahoma City, Louisville, San Francisco and Memphis saw significant percentage increases, though none has a murder rate approaching Baltimore's.
Criminologists, who have been split on the reasons for the years of decline amid an economic slowdown, said it was inevitable that crime would rise.
"We may have hit the bottom and are now on our way up again," said Dennis Kenney, of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. "The fact that crime has bumped up in cities of all sizes and in all regions suggests that it is a real trend and not just a statistical anomaly. Unfortunately, it does appear that Baltimore may be leading the way."
The concerns began over Memorial Day weekend, when 12 shootings left three dead, including a 1-year-old boy in Cherry Hill.
The more recent spate of killings has sparked an outcry by city politicians and large rallies in affected neighborhoods. This week, the Police Department's chief spokesman was reassigned after drawing criticism for saying that the city was generally satisfied with crime reductions. And police said that this weekend there would be up to three times the number of officers typically on the streets, with patrol forces being supplemented by the Maryland State Police, the Maryland Transportation Authority and the city sheriff's office.
On Wednesday, Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts, who took the helm of the department last fall, qualified the progress the Baltimore had made in recent years — in contrast to the mayor's statements regarding the city's strides and the department's own statistics.
"You have to look at crime for a five-year period," he said when asked whether the city's police strategy is working. "We took some really good downturns in 2007, 2008, but the city's basically been flat since 2009. Although we had 197 [homicides] in 2011, if you really look at the stats, we've basically been flat."
John Roman, senior fellow of a Washington, D.C., criminology think tank, said in the short-term Baltimore is doing what it can, putting more officers on the streets.
"You get these days of real violence that's really not happening in other cities," said Roman of the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute. "There tends to be cycles of retaliation and [that] tends to play itself out really quickly because for police, the tendency is to throw everything at it as far as resources … but you can't do that forever."
Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, said other East Coast cities appear to be experiencing sporadic surges in violence too. It's too soon to tell what's causing the spikes, he added.
"It's [just] the past couple of weeks and we're just going to have to monitor it closely. But Baltimore isn't alone," Wexler said.
As Baltimoreans grew more concerned about the violence, Batts moved to reassure them about police efforts, while also noting recent violent weekends in Washington and Chicago. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, in a phone interview from Las Vegas with a television station, said city crime was down and like Batts noted that Washington had experienced a violent weekend.