In Baltimore, 2013 a lost year for fight against violent crime

Homicide rate hit four-year high, while other big cities saw declines

  • Police inspect a crime scene on E. 29th Street, east of Kirk Av, where a shooting occurred Thursday, Dec. 19, 2013.
Police inspect a crime scene on E. 29th Street, east of Kirk Av,… (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore…)
December 29, 2013|By Justin Fenton, The Baltimore Sun

At 1:30 p.m. on a sunny December weekday, just down the hill from prestigious City College high school, shattered glass and blood stained the street.

Neighbors and passersby gathered on the fringes of the crime scene and watched as police officers began investigating the killing of 30-year-old Devlon Cates Jr. Their faces and words showed a mix of dismay and boredom.

"I bet [the killer] was wearing a mask," a young woman said.

The victim "probably didn't even see it coming," her friend surmised. Others waited silently, unable to get to their homes.

Such scenes have grown more common in Baltimore this year. Early Sunday, the city recorded its 234rd homicide, the most in four years. Nonfatal shootings increased after six consecutive years of declines.

Though police blame most of the violence on gangs, the year claimed a range of victims: One-year-old Carter Scott was shot by accident during an attempt on his father's life in Cherry Hill.

Deontae Smith, 15, was fatally stabbed as he left the Ravens' Super Bowl parade. Eighty-year-old John Wood, the inspiration for the 1990s television show "Roc," died after he was punched and hit his head on the ground. And cab driver John Achiampong, 57, a father of five, was killed as he picked up a customer.

Amid the spike — which comes as many other cities have seen a drop in homicides — officials are searching for solutions.

"We're still a much too violent city," Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said. "When you have a homicide rate that is persistently high, it casts a shadow over other progress."

This coming year is in many ways pivotal.

It will mark the second full year for Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts, who recently presented a strategic plan for fighting crime and is working to implement changes across the Police Department. And it is an election year for State's Attorney Gregg Bernstein, who faces at least two challengers in a bid for a second term.

Batts declined to be interviewed for this article. In a statement, he said the Police Department "is not bringing communities the policing that they want and we are going to change that."

Batts said the agency was "stepping out of the dark ages of technology" and would seek to do more predictive policing and better line up resources with crime patterns.

"As we continue to reform the agency and correct inefficiencies, we will better be able to serve the needs of the community and reduce crime in Baltimore," he said in the statement.

Bernstein, whose record has been criticized by campaign opponents, said his office has improved operations under his watch.

"I think we've shown tremendous progress in our investigation and prosecution of the repeat violent offenders," he said.

Gun violence remains down when compared with earlier years. Though some 400 people have been shot and wounded this year, that's less than two-thirds of the 651 who were wounded in 2007. The number of people killed this year was lower than in any year in the 1990s or the first decade of the 2000s.

But if progress is measured by continued declines, 2013 was a lost year. Elsewhere, cities known for similar rates of deadly violence were seeing notable decreases: Homicides were down by 25 percent in Oakland, Calif., by more than 20 percent in New Orleans and by 17 percent in Detroit. Chicago, regularly in the national headlines as the most violent large city, saw a 19 percent decline.

Baltimore, on its way to a year-over-year increase, registered nearly as many gun homicides as New York City, where the population is 13 times larger.

Interviews with community leaders and residents show that few are looking exclusively to police for the answer. Though many believe street-level officers should be more visible and work to strengthen ties in the communities they police, most point to jobs as the only way to reduce gun violence.

"A lot of these cats got dreams — they don't want to do this [drug dealing]," Lawrence Davis, 35, of the Coldstream-Homestead-Montebello neighborhood, said as he looked on at the shooting near City College. "There aren't enough opportunities, and this is all they know."

City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young said police need to boost foot patrols. But he placed much of the blame for the increase in violent crime on the economy.

"Until we're able to create employment opportunities for our citizens in Baltimore, and to address the drug problem that we have in Baltimore, I don't see where we're going to really get out of this," he said.

Police statistics show that total crime dipped slightly, about 2 percent, in 2013. Arrests fell 10 percent, continuing a precipitous drop.

The hardest-hit area of the city this year was West Baltimore. The Western District recorded 43 homicides, the most there since 2003.

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