Losing the streets
Even amid signs of progress, Baltimore struggles with an increase in killings that has cast a shadow over the city
By Doug Donovan and Sumathi Reddy
Originally published July 1, 2007
A teenager pistol-whips and shoots a light rail passenger in Westport. Young men on a drug corner in Barclay spark a gunfight with police. A motorist involved in a fender bender in Ten Hills tries to run over a patrolman, who opens fire in defense.
In one 48-hour stretch last weekend, gunshots echoed in three Baltimore neighborhoods, illustrating a surge in violence that threatens to reverse years of crime reduction credited with fueling the city's development boom.
Today, halfway through 2007, Baltimore has recorded 155 homicides, about a 15 percent increase over the first six months of 2006. That puts Baltimore on pace for the first time this decade to exceed 300 killings in a year - the macabre benchmark associated with a city besieged by crime in the 1990s.
Nonfatal shootings are up even more, rising 32 percent, to 352 so far this year.
"It just seems to be getting worse," said Anita Ann-Marie McDonald, 46, whose 18-year-old son was shot to death near his Belair-Edison home in March. "A very integral part of me has been taken away because of violence, and I don't see it getting better."
For a city preparing to elect new leaders Sept. 11, the violence dominates political debate. Critics of Mayor Sheila Dixon try to pin blame on the shift she has made from zero-tolerance arrest policies to targeted enforcement against the most violent offenders. But Dixon and other observers counter that the homicide increase has no single cause.
Baltimore's rapid approach toward 300 homicides frightens not only politicians but also the businesses and homeowners who bet billions on the city's turnaround, not to mention longtime residents who fear a return to worse days.
Although Baltimore's violent crime levels are far below what they were in the past decade, 2006 marked the first increase since 1999. It's an uptick mirrored in many cities.
Some criminologists fear that the current pace foretells a rising trend driven by gang violence, easy access to guns, a thriving drug market, a large ex-offender population, violent wayward youth and an economic downturn.
Making Baltimore's violence all the more stubborn are its pockets of extreme poverty filled with residents who often don't trust the criminal justice system and are fearful of being seen as informants in neighborhoods where witness intimidation is common.
Meanwhile, long waiting lists for employment and drug treatment leave few rehabilitation options for the thousands who return home to the city each year from prison, and Baltimore's youth struggle to stay productive amid a dearth of summer jobs and too few alternatives to the streets.
"This culture of violence ... is what sets Baltimore apart from some other areas," said Deputy Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III. "This is just not guys arguing over multi-kilo drug deals. It's not guys arguing over who is going to stand on what corner. They will shoot and kill each other over slights in a carryout store, or the lyrics in a rap song, or an argument over a girl."
Yet the outrage is hard to find almost anywhere in the city - whether in thriving neighborhoods isolated from violence or in communities immersed in it.
In January, when New Orleans faced an escalating number of murders, nearly 3,000 people marched on City Hall. That same month, Baltimore's NAACP held an anti-violence rally. Fifty people showed.
"Children are dying. People are getting shot. People shouldn't be accepting this. They should be outraged," said retired state Sen. Ralph M. Hughes, a criminal justice professor at Coppin State University.
Overall violent crime is down 11 percent this year, according to city police statistics, with decreases in aggravated assaults and robberies. But experts view such figures as a less reliable benchmark than the homicide count, considered the most accurate gauge of crime in a city. Criminologists say that in violent cities, many nonfatal crimes go unreported.
The increasing homicide rate touches nearly every aspect of Baltimore. "It affects the vitality and health of the entire city," said Jack Levine, director of the Brudnick Center on Conflict and Violence at Northeastern University in Boston. "It determines whether people will stay in the city; the way that people feel about their personal safety; the willingness of suburbanites to travel into the city; the willingness of companies to relocate within the city limits. It's not just a few neighborhoods. It's the entire area."
But even as the killings remain concentrated in pockets of East and West Baltimore, far from the glittering waterfront neighborhoods and the city's upscale and middle-class locales, fear is beginning to filter into the psyche of virtually all residents. "There is a sense of unease in many of the city's pre-eminent neighborhoods," said Anirban Basu, an economist and city school board member. "When people in these neighborhoods are affected by crime, violent or otherwise, it often leads to the disappearance of tax base, and that's something the city can ill afford.
"In some sense, we're right back to where we started," he added. "We're generating as many homicides as we did during the mid-1990s - with a smaller population."
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