Another murderous year erodes Baltimore’s spirit – and faith in its leaders
Sharp calls for change as the high homicide toll and troubled police department tear at the city and make mortifying national news
Above: In Howard Park, reaction to a loved one’s 2013 killing, a tragic scene that has played out with increasing frequency in Baltimore as the homicide rate has surged. (Chris Ervin)
J.C. Faulk, a longtime community activist, finds the violence all around him in Baltimore not just horrifying, but outrageous.
“There’s no accountability,” Faulk fumed, looking back at the last three years in which the city’s arrest rate has been strikingly low, while there’s been nearly a killing a day.
A seven-year-old girl. A cheerful 26-year-old former college football star. A bartender slain as he walked home from celebrating his 27th birthday.
City leaders, Faulk said, “need to own” not just the spike in murders, but the muggings, carjackings, robberies and drug-dealing that seem to be taking place with impunity.
“A year ago, I did a ride-along [with police officers] and we were in the car watching people selling drugs and they did nothing about it,” said Faulk.
“A dude looked over, and he didn’t run. Didn’t care. It was obvious the police were no threat to them.”
“This car in front of us just opened fire on the car next to it.”
Then there was the cross-fire that he and a friend were caught in this past Saturday night at about 8 p.m. as they drove on North Avenue after a day spent visiting a museum in Philadelphia.
“This car in front of us just opened fire on the car next to it,” said Faulk, who was near the intersection with Greenmount Avenue when the bullets started flying.
The shot-up car weaved from one side of the street to the other, knocked down a pole and came to a stop.
Faulk said he couldn’t see the people inside either vehicle, but concluded that “there was probably somebody dead in that car.”
Along with relief that he and his friend were unhurt, Faulk said, he felt shock at the brazenness.
“People just felt like they could do this at a major intersection with people all around and nothing would happen to them.”
Faulk points to the well-documented law enforcement slow-down after the 2015 protests and rioting in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death and the failed prosecution of the police officers involved.
“We aren’t going to do shit for you, we’re going to let the bad people run rampant” is how he sums up the police attitude.
Supporting that theory is data that isn’t news to Faulk (or to many others in town) but which caused a small civic eruption when the Washington Post gathered it up into a front page story last week.
As police struggle to solve homicides, Baltimore residents see an “open season for killing” reported that:
• In 2014, city police made an arrest in 41% of homicide cases. Last year, the rate was 27%, a 14 point drop.
• For most of the decade before 2015, Baltimore’s annual homicide arrest rate hovered at about 40%. In the ensuing years it never topped 30%.
• Baltimore’s arrest rate drop was also strikingly sudden compared to other cities, plummeting 15 percentage points after Gray’s death in 2015.
Afraid to go Outside
And it’s not just the murders. It’s the robberies, street muggings and burglaries that are “killing” neighborhoods and nightlife, residents say.
Those fears extend across the city – from young people afraid to go downtown to older people marooned in their own rowhouses to kids who have to duck on their way to school when they hear gunshots.
“This is the United States of America. It’s where no one should live like this!” activist and community leader C.W. Harris said in October, as he sat for a haircut in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood.
“We’re locked up in our own homes because of the killings,” Harris said, observing that much of the bloodshed stems from a well-known cause – turf wars between drug gangs.
At the time he spoke, a 52-year-old man had been shot less than a block away two nights before. That same week seven people had been killed in the city, almost all on the west side.
Whether the police are unwilling or unable, Faulk said this week, the end result is that “the department isn’t doing its job.”
And because of the corruption uncovered by the federal Gun Trace Task Force prosecution, he added, there’s little trust left in the force by the community.
“We’re under siege,” he said. “Not just by bad citizens, but by cops who are in on it.”
The Post piece prompted a robust response online, including sharp criticism of Mayor Catherine Pugh and some speculation about what challenger could unseat her in the 2020 election.
“Just wonderful national news. Infuriating,” Sen. Bill Ferguson wrote in withering Facebook remarks linking to the Post article.
The process of finding a new police commissioner has dragged on for months and months, there’s no criminal justice advisor and the consent decree process is “floundering along,” he wrote.
“And we continue to stagger without a coherent crime and safety plan for the city — it doesn’t have to be this way,” the 46th District senator added.
Pugh’s defenders point out that violent crime is slightly down from the peak levels of last year and that the homicide arrest rate is improving. Pugh shouldn’t be blamed, they argue, for crime rooted in decades of structural racism.
Others say they feel betrayed by the mayor and the other elected officials in city government.
“I’ve lost faith in her. I walked her to her car four nights in row during the Uprising,” Faulk said, citing her reversal on minimum wage legislation along with drift on crime, police and other issues.
“She is not good for the city.”
The Way Out?
Several people responding to Ferguson’s comments called for Annapolis to step in.
“Every day it’s another human tragedy followed by a degrading media onslaught,” one man wrote.
“The State of Maryland needs to exert the full weight of its constitutional authority and take control of Baltimore City.”
Dismantle and rebuild the BPD, some said. Press the city council to halt the confirmation process for Pugh’s chosen police commissioner candidate, still other suggested, noting reports that her advisors’ top pick was actually another man – New Orleans police superintendent Michael Harrison.
To Dan Sparaco, an assistant deputy mayor during the Stephanie Rawlings-Blake administration, the problem isn’t Pugh or finding a “younger” or “smarter” version of current leaders.
“Our leadership class still hasn’t figured out what the unrest meant – why it happened, how to respond to it, and how to redefine our city,” wrote Sparaco, founder of the political action committee BaltimoreNow.
The surge in homicides, he said, is “just the most visible part of an iceberg our leaders can’t begin to address.”
Bloodshed and Disinvestment
To northwest Baltimore activist Christopher Ervin, the focus on pre vs. post 2015 murder numbers misses the point.
“The highest number of homicides was in 1993, but they have consistently taken place in the same areas and in the same communities which largely still look exactly like they did in 1993,” he said.
The lead photo at the top of this story, taken by Ervin, shows the anguish following a 2013 slaying that occurred near his home in Howard Park.
The above photo, also taken by Ervin, likewise shows the scene of a fatal shooting near his home. It took place in 2016.
“It was one of three that occurred within 72 hours and within a block-and-a-half radius – there have been others since,” said Ervin, an unsuccessful City Council candidate and founder of an organization to aid returning citizens, The Lazarus Rite.
“Whether it’s 2013 or 2016, the dynamic has not changed one bit,” Ervin said.
“It’s been two years now under a new mayor, four commissioners in less than a year, and Baltimore receiving an influx of investment as result of the uprising,” he observed.
“And there has been little to no capital investment in the areas of most concentrated poverty and homicide.”