Gunfire resounds in city, and police hear a silence
Officials lament witnesses’ reluctance to come forward
The video shows two children outside an East Baltimore apartment building last Saturday night, one in a baby rocker. At least five adults stand nearby, a dice game underway.
The bullets came a moment later, police say, missing their target and instead wounding a 4-year-old girl, a 6-year-old boy and a 60-year-old woman.
The community expressed outrage. But for days, no one came forward with information.
“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference,” said Police Commissioner Kevin Davis. “We’re seeing a lot of indifference that frustrates us and frustrates the community.”
In addressing the intense pace of violence in Baltimore in recent days, police commanders and city officials have lamented the near-constant sound of gunfire — but also the resounding silence from witnesses and others they believe have information. It has left detectives with few leads and “trigger pullers” free to shoot again, police say.
The shooting of the children at the Latrobe Homes apartment building was one of four triple shootings during the Labor Day weekend, when a total of 22 people were shot over three days. After a record-breaking year of violence in 2015, when there were 344
“We have to put fear aside and do what’s right for our children.” City Councilman Brandon Scott
homicides, this year is tracking not far behind: Homicides are down slightly, but nonfatal shootings and overall violent crime are up.
The Police Department’s homicide clearance rate for the year is hovering just above 30 percent, less than half the national average and about 20 percentage points below recent averages for cities of Baltimore’s size.
The pace of homicides this year has quickened in recent days, with 214 killings logged as of Friday. At the current rate, the city will surpass 300 homicides again this year, for only the second time since 1999.
To prevent that, police and city officials say, good citizens need to stand up and share the information they have. They can remain anonymous.
“We have to put fear aside and do what’s right for our children, and that is to stand up and say, ‘We can’t allow people to shoot our children,’ ” said City Councilman Brandon Scott, vice chair of the public safety committee.
“Where are the people?” asked Chief Melvin Russell, who heads the police community collaboration division. “Where are the people coming forward saying, ‘Hey, I need to say something about this. That [suspect] was so-and-so’?”
Davis said the benefits of providing police with information are clear. He pointed to two arrests in another triple shooting last weekend — in which wit- nesses came forward.
The lack of cooperation from witnesses is not new.
Baltimore is the home of the “Stop Snitching” culture, a place State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby has called the “home of witness intimidation.”
Given such intimidation, which has turned deadly in the past, some question whether the responsibility for solving crime should be placed on residents.
AnthonyBarksdale, a former acting police commissioner in Baltimore, said police should be developing informants and questioning those arrested for lesser crimes to draw out information, not constantly asking law-abiding citizens to put themselves at risk of retaliation by talking to police.
“The most troubling part to me is that, as their strategy and tactics fail, they’re putting more and more on the shoulders of citizens. I don’t want to keep telling the people they need to come forward and shaming them. My God, it’s the job of police to deal with criminals,” Barksdale said. “There are people on those streets right now who only the cops should be dealing with. Only the cops.”
Beyond the fear, officials have acknowledged the distrust many community members have for the police, a long-standing reality exposed by last year’s unrest and described in a recent U.S. Department of Justice report that found police have routinely violated residents’ rights. But police are asking residents to join them in their efforts to improve and heal the city, not further distance themselves — especially when it comes to children getting shot.
“Regardless of what your relationship is with the police, what you believe community-police relations are, let’s all call a truce for today to identify a trigger puller on a 4and a 6-year-old,” police spokesman T.J. Smith said of the Latrobe Homes shooting. “Let’s put differences aside, whatever they may be, for the sake of community, because that person who decides to fire back and forth when the kids are clearly there does not care.”
Russell said there used to be a code, where even criminals in the city would say, “We don’t shoot children, we don’t shoot in areas where children are, we don’t shoot where our elders are.” If you broke the code, the entire community used to hold you accountable, he said.
Now, with that gone, he said, his unit is working to engage youths and religious leaders and to restore relationships — both with police and among community members.
Police have also turned to technology to try to fill the intelligence void, earning a growing reputation for seeking out hightech solutions to crime fighting. Examples include the aerial surveillance trial program the department operated in secret until recently and the “stingray” cell tower technology it has used to track suspects’ movements by their cellphones.
But technology can’t do everything, police say.
“We’ve said all along that we need to take advantage of technology, and we are certainly taking advantage of technology,” Davis said. “But people have to step forward and tell us what they know, and we need to get there quickly.”
Police have even encouraged victims of violence to speak out by posting the details of their ordeals on social media to drum up information.
Mitchell Guthrie, a 41-year-old native of Scotland who moved to Butchers Hill in July, was walking along North Chester Street to a nearby gas station about 10 p.m. Sept. 2 when two juveniles approached him; one pulled a gun and demanded money, he said.
Guthrie thought the gun looked fake. “To me, he was just a kid. He didn’t have a real gun. I told him to get lost,” he said.
Then the other youth came from behind and stabbed him twice in the abdomen before the pair fled, he said. As he stumbled toward home to call police, circles of blood started to appear on his shirt.
Within minutes, five officers were in his house, asking him to describe his attackers, Guthrie said. “Almost as I spoke the words, they were communicating that over the radio to try to get a handle on who might be out on the streets to immediately look for these guys.”
Guthrie was treated at Johns Hopkins Hospital. When he was discharged days later, two detectives came back to his house.
They said they were going to look for closed-circuit TVfootage and keep working the case, Guthrie said. But they also had a request.
“They did mention to me that I could really help them by putting this out there on social media,” he said. “They said that would help the investigation.”
“We’re seeing a lot of indifference that frustrates us,” said city Police Commissioner Kevin Davis of residents’ unwillingness to speak out after witnessing crimes.