National News

Anguish Over a Record-Breaking Homicide Rate

Posted January 16, 2018 6:57 p.m. EST
Updated January 16, 2018 7:01 p.m. EST

BALTIMORE — What happened to 19-year-old Markel Scott last March is increasingly common here: Someone walked up to him on the street and shot him six times. Two months from his high school graduation, he died on the sidewalk, still wearing his book bag.

“I grew up here and I’ve never seen crime like this,” his mother, Sharonda Rhodes, said recently. “These are not normal times. The guns are everywhere.”

Scott attended a small school for older students who had dropped out and were trying to get their lives on track. But his resolve was not enough to shield him from the dangers of the streets. Seven students at Excel Academy have been killed in 15 months, so much violence that an empty desk might mean a skipped class — or another permanent absence.

Dealing with homicide has become routine at Excel, with grief counselors called in with each fallen classmate. It has become difficult to focus on things like biology or math. With its shrinking student body, the school is a grim reflection of the difficulties facing Baltimore.

Last year, the city had the highest murder rate in its history, and by far the highest among the nation’s 30 largest cities. That statistic has not been the only blow to Baltimore’s image. In recent days, children shivered in city schools with no heat and a hospital deposited a woman in socks and a medical gown at a bus stop on a winter night. Even Chicago, which has shared Baltimore’s notoriety for violence in recent years, saw homicides fall last year, while Baltimore’s numbers continue to rise. And nobody is sure what to do about it.

Although the reasons for the high rate of violence are unclear, city officials are experimenting, they say, with almost anything that might whittle down the number everyone here seems to know by heart: 343, the number of homicide victims last year.

The city is adding to a network of more than 750 high-definition cameras that zoom in and follow people as they walk down streets. Probationers and parolees are getting checked on more often. Recreation centers and libraries have expanded their hours.

Mayor Catherine E. Pugh, who took office a year ago, convenes monthly meetings with community leaders from the city’s most troubled neighborhoods to discuss anti-violence strategies.

City Hall has ordered every agency to undertake initiatives to reduce crime, like installing street lighting and clearing vacant lots. The mayor requires department heads to attend daily meetings where they discuss not only the previous day’s homicides but the best way to board up abandoned buildings.

It is unclear whether the strategies are working: There were nine killings during the first 12 days of 2018.

The Police Department finds signs of hope where it can. The first weekend in January was a bright spot; there was only a single homicide. “Three days, one murder — that’s no accident,” Kevin Davis, the police commissioner, said at the next daily crime intervention meeting. “But what gets us is the Mondays and Tuesdays. Let’s do the best we can.”

Police say the vast majority of homicides are retaliatory and committed by repeat offenders. Last year’s victims had an average of 11 arrests each. Almost half had been arrested in connection with violent crimes and nearly three-quarters on drug charges. The suspected killers had similar rap sheets, though they had been arrested fewer times on average than the victims.

Some woes common to cities are worse in Baltimore. A port city, it has been a center of heroin use and distribution since at least the 1970s. “If I live in a neighborhood that has been festering with drugs for 20 years, I’m going to be a drug dealer or be on drugs or be a victim of one or the other,” said Tammatha Woodhouse, the principal of Excel Academy, the small alternative school that Scott attended.

The neighborhoods she is talking about have been starved of investment in schools, businesses — even sidewalk repair. The city has 16,000 abandoned homes. Its rate among children of lead poisoning, which often comes from peeling paint and has been linked to lack of impulse control and learning disabilities, is nearly three times higher than the national rate.

“When we don’t address the real cause of poverty, we put young people in places and situations they wouldn’t have been otherwise,” Woodhouse said. The deaths of her students bear the hallmarks of a city awash in guns, with too few residents willing to tell the police what they know.

Bryant Beverly, 18, was fatally shot after he was chased into a house after a dispute.

Steven Jackson, 18, was killed in a double homicide that the police say was related to drug sales.

Lavar Douglas, 18, was killed by a police officer at Coppin State University after Douglas shot at someone in a car.

And of Scott, police would say only that he may have been killed in a disagreement about money.

Scott had no criminal record, and it may never be known whether this was a current dispute, something from his past catching up with him, or even a simple misunderstanding. Six of the seven killings remain unsolved.

That is at least partly because of persistent mistrust of the police, a simmering problem laid bare in 2015 by the death of Freddie Gray, an African-American man who died while he was in police custody. Last year, six members of the department’s Gun Trace Task Force pleaded guilty in a scandal that involved stealing guns, money and drugs. The troubled department is operating under a federal consent decree after the government found a pattern of unconstitutional searches and police misconduct that targeted African-Americans.

Police say that even when they have a suspect, they can be hampered by a code of silence that is not unique to Baltimore but has sometimes been traced back to a “Stop Snitching” DVD that circulated here in 2004.

The lack of answers in her son’s death gnaws at Rhodes. “What did he know? What did he see? Why did someone shoot him so many times?” she asked. “My son only weighed 125 pounds, but someone shot him six times, twice in the face. Why?”

At one point, a detective called and acknowledged that he had not had time to work on the case, she said, because “there were so many other bodies.” The 423 students at Excel have complicated, often traumatic pasts. Many of them live in group homes or foster care, and struggled in regular school. The school has four social workers, a psychologist and mental health counselors who talk frequently to students about how to avoid violence — and when it happens, how to cope.

Excel recently opened what students call the “chill-out room,” where they can vent to a staff aide, listen to music in headphones, or just sit in silence.

Déja Williams, 19, a student who knew the seven young men who were killed, had been particularly close to Markel Scott. Her path has included six foster homes, sporadic school attendance and frequent quarrels with Woodhouse, who has repeatedly convinced her not to drop out. She is scheduled to graduate this year.

Of the killings, Williams said, “After the third time, it was like, ‘What’s going on? Why are so many people from our school getting murdered? Is someone going after Excel?’ But I think most of them were at the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Rhodes said her son did not carry a gun and was not involved in illegal activity. She made sure, she said, by periodically scanning his mobile phone and Facebook and Instagram accounts.

He had dropped out of school when he was 17, around the time three of his friends were killed, she said. But once he started at Excel, he became a dedicated student.

Less than a week before his death, Scott declared his new sense of purpose to his friends. “I might have my days when I’m slacking, but I will never quit again,” he wrote on Facebook. A few weeks before that, he announced: “Graduate in three months. Joining The Army & That’s My Way Out.”

“His whole goal was, ‘I am going to graduate,'” Woodhouse recalled. “I remember him saying he didn’t want to be a statistic.”