Homi­cides un­abated by plane, pan­demic

Bal­ti­more has counted 164 so far this year, 11 more than at same point in 2019

Baltimore Sun - - FRONT PAGE - By Jes­sica An­der­son

Not con­tin­u­ing calls by res­i­dents to end the vi­o­lence, not the launch of a po­lice sur­veil­lance plane, not even the coro­n­avirus pan­demic have slowed Bal­ti­more’s re­lent­less pace of homi­cides. Ap­proach­ing the year’s half­way point, more peo­ple have been killed in the city than dur­ing 2019, which had the high­est homi­cide rate on record.

The stay-at-home or­ders have not abated the killings, even though crime in most other cat­e­gories has dipped, ac­cord­ing to po­lice and crime statis­tics. And now, with re­stric­tive health mea­sures eas­ing and the his­tor­i­cally vi­o­lent sum­mer months ar­riv­ing, Bal­ti­more po­lice are work­ing to come up with so­lu­tions.

“The bad ac­tors who are com­mit­ting mur­ders are still out,” said Bal­ti­more Po­lice Com­mis­sioner Michael Har­ri­son said.

Bal­ti­more has counted 164 homi­cides this year, more than 152 at this time last year when the city even­tu­ally saw a 348. The North­west­ern and South­west­ern dis­tricts have been the hard­est hit, with 27 and 26 homi­cides, re­spec­tively.

So far in June, 35 peo­ple have been killed, in­clud­ing Shi­and Miller, 23, and

her 3-year-old daugh­ter Shaniya Gil­more. Miller was 8-months preg­nant with a baby boy when she was fa­tally shot in South­west Bal­ti­more on June 19.

The city has a new tool in its ef­forts to stem vi­o­lence. A pi­lot pro­gram started in May launched a po­lice sur­veil­lance plane, which flies over the city dur­ing day­light hours in an ef­fort to help in­ves­ti­gate and track sus­pects in se­ri­ous cases and, hope­fully po­lice say, act as a de­ter­rent to would-be crim­i­nals.

Har­ri­son said in a re­cent in­ter­view that the pro­gram has not yet led to any arrests, but it has shown some prom­ise.

“As of this mo­ment, it has not turned into any clear­ance of any homi­cides or shoot­ings, al­though there are a num­ber of cases that are cap­tured,” Har­ri­son said.

The con­tro­ver­sial pro­gram, how­ever, has led to the pro­duc­tion of 44 “ev­i­den­tiary pack­ets,” which are for­warded to de­tec­tives in­ves­ti­gat­ing homi­cides and other se­ri­ous crimes.

“I am keep­ing an open mind. I had no ex­pec­ta­tions about the pro­gram,” said Har­ri­son, adding he wants to hear from re­searchers who are sup­posed to eval­u­ate the project at the end of its six-month pi­lot, which runs un­til the fall.

The pro­gram, with a $3.7 million bud­get, was sup­posed to op­er­ate with three planes. Po­lice spokes­woman Lind­sey Eldridge said so far two planes are op­er­at­ing, and a third will be put it use af­ter a de­lay needed to ac­quire equip­ment from a ven­dor.

The planes, their pi­lots, an­a­lysts and hangar space are be­ing funded by Texas phi­lan­thropists Laura and John Arnold through their or­ga­ni­za­tion, Arnold Ven­tures. The tech­nol­ogy is ca­pa­ble of cap­tur­ing images of 32 square miles of the city for a min­i­mum of 40 hours a week.

While the sur­veil­lance plane may or may not rep­re­sent hope for the fu­ture, po­lice are strug­gling to deal with the present.

June’s 35 killings eclipse last year’s total by one and are part of a par­tic­u­larly vi­o­lent stretch. In May, 39 peo­ple were killed, the high­est since May 2015, when 42 died.

Among this year’s vic­tims are 16-year-old Ala’ju­naye Davis, an hon­ors stu­dent at the Na­tional Academy Foun­da­tion High School in Bal­ti­more, a pop­u­lar stu­dent who loved hip-hop mu­sic. She en­joyed dress­ing in brightly col­ored clothes and was a stand­out stu­dent, de­scribed by one teacher as “stu­dious and nat­u­rally gifted.”

An­other young vic­tim, 19-year-old Aaron Sut­ton, had com­pleted his fresh­man year at Howard Univer­sity and was work­ing to­ward an en­gi­neer­ing de­gree. In ad­di­tion to his stud­ies, he was pur­su­ing a mu­sic ca­reer.

Those deaths came at the height of Mary­land’s bat­tle to stem the coro­n­avirus.

Har­ri­son said even with fewer peo­ple al­lowed out in pub­lic, the depart­ment con­tin­ued to re­ceive about the same level of calls for ser­vice.

There have been marked de­creases in crime over­all, in­clud­ing non-fa­tal shoot­ings, which are down about 14%, from 343 to 286, com­pared to last year, po­lice records show. Rob­beries have dropped by about 20%, bur­glar­ies are down 23%, and auto thefts are down 22%.

To ad­dress the per­sis­tent in­crease in homi­cides, Har­ri­son said the depart­ment has un­der­taken new de­ploy­ment strate­gies.

“We have a plans for height­ened vis­i­bil­ity and pa­trol strate­gies for the sum­mer months, a lot of it is read­justed be­cause of COVID, so we are still deal­ing with that,” he said.

City Coun­cil Pres­i­dent Bran­don Scott, the Demo­cratic nom­i­nee ex­pected to be­come mayor of a city on pace for a sixth straight year of more than 300 homi­cides, said more needs to be done to com­bat the vi­o­lence.

“What I want to con­tinue to fo­cus on is recognizin­g that we have to fig­ure out a way to get a hold on the vi­o­lence,” he said.

Scott said the con­tin­ued vi­o­lence in Bal­ti­more is not a sur­prise, pan­demic or not. He is push­ing the depart­ment to fo­cus on vi­o­lent, re­peat of­fend­ers whohe be­lieves are re­spon­si­ble for the ma­jor­ity of the city’s vi­o­lence.

Har­ri­son said there must be a more holis­tic ap­proach if a long-last­ing, sus­tain­able drop in homi­cides is to be achieved.

“To re­ally re­duce mur­ders, you have to have pro­gram­matic so­lu­tions,” he said. “For far too long, ev­ery­body had re­lied on po­lice vis­i­bil­ity and de­ploy­ment strate­gies. But in a crime of pre­med­i­ta­tion, de­ploy­ment strate­gies can only be so ef­fec­tive.”

One ini­tia­tive Har­ri­son spoke of is the depart­ment’s at­tempt to find a non­profit part­ner to cre­ate a “fo­cused de­ter­rence” pro­gram that tar­gets high-risk peo­ple, help­ing them get ser­vices and other op­por­tu­ni­ties that will dis­cour­age them from com­mit­ting crimes.

“Fo­cused de­ter­rence is build­ing the pro­gram­matic so­lu­tions and pre­ven­tion that deals with re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion, and reen­try,” he said

Many ad­vo­cates lo­cally and around the country in re­cent weeks have called for de­fund­ing po­lice de­part­ments, of­ten a mea­sure they say would move re­sources into so­cial and com­mu­nity ser­vices.

A lo­cal group, Lead­ers for a Beau­ti­ful Strug­gle has been a vo­cal leader for cre­at­ing a sce­nario where po­lice are seen as a last re­sort.

Dayvon Love, the group’s pol­icy di­rec­tor, doesn’t en­vi­sion the po­lice depart­ment im­me­di­ately be­ing dis­banded, but in­stead said there is an op­por­tu­nity to build up pro­grams like Safe Streets, which re­lies on “vi­o­lence in­ter­rupters” in the com­mu­nity to help dif­fuse con­flicts.

“When you give peo­ple, in the face of is­sues of safety and vi­o­lence, two op­tions — more po­lice or less po­lice — they’re go­ing to choose more po­lice,” Love said in an in­ter­view with The Sun ear­lier this month, ex­plain­ing that end­ing polic­ing en­tirely is not re­al­is­tic.

Har­ri­son said he agrees so­lu­tions out­side of polic­ing are nec­es­sary to ad­dress the root causes of vi­o­lence.

But tak­ing money away from Bal­ti­more’s po­lice depart­ment right now would be harm­ful, he said, es­pe­cially as it al­ready is un­der­go­ing a trans­for­ma­tion as part of wide­spread re­forms man­dated un­der a fed­eral con­sent de­cree. The con­sent de­cree, among many re­quire­ments, calls for in­creas­ing the num­ber of po­lice of­fi­cers, im­proved train­ing and bet­ter tech­nol­ogy — all of which cost money.

The agree­ment be­tween the Bal­ti­more and the U.S. Depart­ment of Jus­tice was reached af­ter what fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tors called years of vi­o­la­tions of peo­ple’s con­sti­tu­tional rights at the hands of some Bal­ti­more po­lice of­fi­cers.

“I am not against re­ar­rang­ing pri­or­i­ties” Har­ri­son said. “If you are go­ing to de­fund po­lice and cut out ser­vices, then some­one has be to able to pick up that slack.”

Other cities, in­clud­ing New York, Cincin­nati, In­di­anapo­lis, Mil­wau­kee and Washington, D.C. have all seen in­creases in homi­cides this year dur­ing the pan­demic. Mil­wau­kee’s homi­cide rate is up 80%, while D.C.‘s is up 10%, ac­cord­ing to those de­part­ments.

“Things oc­cur­ring across the country that are not unique to Bal­ti­more,” said Daniel Webster, di­rec­tor of the Johns Hop­kins Cen­ter for Gun Pol­icy and Re­search.

Webster said many fac­tors are con­tribut­ing, in­clud­ing “the sud­den­ness in the eco­nomic shock” from the coro­n­avirus pan­demic, which has put stress on many peo­ple. Ad­di­tion­ally, the virus has strained many sys­tems, from law en­force­ment to health­care and ed­u­ca­tion.

And the re­cent un­rest na­tion­wide over po­lice bru­tal­ity and ra­cial in­jus­tice also con­trib­uted to ten­sions.

“There are all kinds of so­cial di­vi­sions, things that are cre­at­ing stress in peo­ple’s lives. We’re in a dif­fer­ent time,” he said. “A com­bi­na­tion of pretty dra­matic shock and vul­ner­a­bil­ity and heav­ily stressed peo­ple just won­der­ing howthey are go­ing to get by.”

KEN­NETH K. LAM/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

Fam­i­lies and friends gather for a vigil at Boswell and Fred­er­ick Av­enue in Bal­ti­more for Shi­and Miller and her 3-year-old daugh­ter, Shaniya Gil­more. Their killings were per­haps the most sen­sa­tional and shock­ing crimes in a spate of re­cent homi­cides to grip the city.

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