Bold crim­i­nals with guns, sim­ple mo­tives

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - NEWS -

Two weeks ago, a tow-truck driver, ap­par­ently con­cerned about the city’s re­cently de­ployed speed cam­eras, asked if I knew of any along North­ern Park­way. I said I did not. “All these homi­cides in Bal­ti­more,” he groused, “and all they care about is money from speed­ing tick­ets.”

“Is that right?” I said. “That’s all we care about?” “Seems that way.” I rec­og­nized the guy’s voice. I’ve heard it be­fore. It’s snarky and cyn­i­cal. It mocks Bal­ti­more as a failed state of high prop­erty taxes, sketchy rev­enue schemes and an out­ra­geous level of crim­i­nal­ity. Such views of the city are usu­ally de­vel­oped from a safe dis­tance, in­formed more by AM talk ra­dio and so­cial me­dia than by di­rect knowl­edge. I don’t pay much at­ten­tion to it any­more.

Then, last week, I re­ceived a let­ter from a fel­low Bal­ti­more res­i­dent who com­plained that City Hall ex­hib­ited no ur­gency about the de­press­ing pace of shoot­ings and homi­cides. He said the city’s gen­eral re­sponse to the vi­o­lence has been a “farce.”

I asked what he would do about the killings. His sug­ges­tions in­cluded tougher sen­tenc­ing of vi­o­lent of­fend­ers, more cops in uni­form on the streets, more crim­i­nal cases de­ferred to fed­eral pros­e­cu­tors. Good ideas, but noth­ing orig­i­nal. And no im­me­di­ate rem­edy.

It’s not easy to come up with a sin­gle, sure­fire ap­proach to stem­ming vi­o­lence in Bal­ti­more, es­pe­cially at a time when the po­lice also need to es­tab­lish trust with the peo­ple they’ve sworn to serve and pro­tect. But the frus­tra­tion and im­pa­tience is un­der­stand­able. Af­ter the vi­o­lent 1990s, most of us thought we would never again see years with 300-plus homi­cides. And yet, at the cur­rent pace of killing, we are in the mid­dle of what could be the third con­sec­u­tive one.

On Fri­day, Gov. Larry Ho­gan pulled the state’s an­nual grant to the Bal­ti­more Crim­i­nal Jus­tice Co­or­di­nat­ing Coun­cil and trans­ferred the money to the mayor’s of­fice. The of­fi­cial rea­son: In Ho­gan’s view, the coun­cil has not done enough about vi­o­lent crime. The gover­nor has the right to do what he did, but what does he want? What’s his an­swer to the homi­cides?

A pledge from judges to ig­nore plea deals and sen­tence ev­ery crim­i­nal de­fen­dant to the max? Does Ho­gan want Po­lice Com­mis­sioner Kevin Davis to em­ploy strate­gies tried be­fore — cops in tac­ti­cal vests, jeans and back­ward hats, “jump-out boys” mak­ing lots of ar­rests?

It all sounds so sim­ple and ex­cel­lent. All we’d have to do is sus­pend the con­sent de­cree with the Depart­ment of Jus­tice and re­turn to O’Mal­ley-era ar­rest rates. But that’s not go­ing to hap­pen. Bal­ti­more is in the midst of what seems like a long chain-re­ac­tion ac­ci­dent.

Con­sider this pileup since the Fred­die Gray ri­ot­ing of April 27, 2015: the flood­ing of the streets with nar­cotics from the loot­ing of 27 phar­ma­cies and two methadone clin­ics; an on­go­ing opi­oid cri­sis that left 700 peo­ple in the city dead from over­doses last year; a po­lice force di­min­ished by re­tire­ment and res­ig­na­tions and the prose­cu­tion of of­fi­cers; a scathing fed­eral re­port on polic­ing and po­lice-com­mu­nity re­la­tions; the in­dict­ments of eight of­fi­cers as­signed to an elite gun unit; the wel­come de­ploy­ment of po­lice body cam­eras, but now with ques­tions about their use re­sult­ing in the drop­ping of sev­eral crim­i­nal cases.

And then there’s the in­sane vi­o­lence — 247 homi­cides so far this year, as of late Fri­day.

I made the rounds one evening last month with Davis as he vis­ited of­fi­cers and cit­i­zens at three stops on the west side — Lex­ing­ton Mar­ket, Har­lem Park and Penn-North. Davis, an af­fa­ble man, spends a lot of time talk­ing to peo­ple on side­walks, and en­cour­ages his of­fi­cers to do the same.

I asked about the homi­cides. Why so many? Why does this con­tinue? Davis said many are the re­sult of dis­putes — about debts, about sales ter­ri­tory — among drug deal­ers or be­tween deal­ers and their cus­tomers. But that’s been the case for years.

“And then,” he said, “the other non­sen­si­cal mo­tives to mur­ders in the city are sim­ple mat­ters of per­sonal dis­putes that should stop at a ver­bal ar­gu­ment or maybe stop at a fist­fight, but they end up in gun­play.” I’ve heard that be­fore, too. I pressed for a bet­ter an­swer, for some new fac­tor or trend.

Davis men­tioned “easy ac­cess to guns.” His of­fi­cers make gun ar­rests ev­ery day, and yet there seems no end to the sup­ply. But that’s been the case for a long time, too. So I pushed Davis a lit­tle more for some in­sight.

What’s new, he said, is the na­ture of the shooter, what he calls “a newly em­bold­ened crim­i­nal el­e­ment in our city post-2015 . ... And when I mean more em­bold­ened — they’re more likely to carry guns than they were be­fore, and they’re more likely to en­gage in day­time vi­o­lence now than they were be­fore.”

And there’s noth­ing in­trigu­ing or ex­trav­a­gant about the mo­tives for the killings.

“Peo­ple are per­plexed at the un­so­phis­ti­cated na­ture of mur­ders in ... Bal­ti­more.”

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