Kevin Rector, Baltimore Sun, September 28, 2016
An 11-year-old boy was walking near Patterson Park in Southeast Baltimore when five teenagers approached on bikes. One pulled out a knife, according to police, said “Give me your stuff,” and rifled through the boy’s pockets. He stole $6 and a cellphone.
Across town a couple hours later, a 64-year-old man was reading a book on a bench in the Wyman Park Dell near the Johns Hopkins University. A group of teens approached, police say, put a gun to his head, sprayed him with mace, stabbed him and stole his belongings.
One of the teens casually streamed video of the attack on Facebook.
Law enforcement officials say both incidents — described in police records — fit an alarming pattern: roving groups of armed teenagers, working around the clock and across Baltimore, brazenly targeting victims for cash, cellphones and other belongings.
They say the attacks are helping to drive the highest rate of robberies the city has seen in years.
“We just have a larger pool of suspects because we are now seeing juveniles who don’t have a juvenile record being involved in these crimes,” said Baltimore police Maj. Kimberly Burrus, commander of the department’s district detective unit, which investigates robberies citywide.
“When we arrest one group of juveniles, we have another group that pops right up.”
Gavin Patashnick, chief of the juvenile division in the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s office, said the trend is not necessarily new, but one that prosecutors are trying to combat.
“The public’s fed up, and the perception is that we live in a Clockwork Orange world where kids are roaming around and beating people up,” Patashnick said. “We’re always trying to figure out the answer, what the magic bullet will be to solve violence, particularly youth violence.”
Robberies were up 12 percent this year through Sept. 24 compared to the same time last year, according to citywide crime data, reaching at least a six-year high. The increase has pushed overall violent crime up 5 percent, despite declines in other crimes, including homicides, rapes and arsons.
The spike in robberies is being led by carjackings, up 44 percent, and “miscellaneous” robberies — at schools, Metro stations and other semi-public locations — which are up 64 percent. Residential robberies are up 7 percent; street robberies are up 16 percent. Commercial robberies are down.
The Police Department’s clearance rate for robberies this year is 34 percent, slightly below the rate last year, but above recent national averages.
Police said they do not track the ages of robbery suspects in the city, so it is impossible to know whether the number of youth committing such crimes has risen, or by how much. In many cases, the ages of suspects in an unsolved robbery are unknown.
What is known is that the number of juveniles charged with robbery has increased, from 220 last year through Sept. 23 to 265 during the same period this year, according to the state Department of Juvenile Services, a 20 percent jump.
The number charged with carjacking rose from 13 to 20. The number charged with robbery with a deadly weapon rose from 54 to 58.
While police are arresting more youths, Burrus said, younger teens are ready to take their place. And when juveniles are arrested for serious robberies, she said, they are being processed quickly through the juvenile judicial system and landing back on the streets to commit the same crimes again — at times with court-ordered monitoring devices strapped to their ankles.
“We see a lot of juveniles committing crimes that they have already been arrested for,” Burrus said.
Police say groups of juveniles and others were intentionally causing fender-benders to rob the unsuspecting drivers of the vehicles they hit. In North and Northwest Baltimore, police say, a group who called themselves “the Jankz” were recruiting juveniles to commit carjackings, then using the vehicles themselves to commit more robberies.
And police say they have seen a citywide increase in callers luring for-hire sedan and illegal hack drivers to a location, where they are approached by a female, and then robbed by two males.
The increase in robberies is most pronounced in the Southeastern District, where they’re up 38 percent, and the Southern District, where they’re up 30 percent.
Robberies are up 11 percent in the Central District, 16 percent in the Eastern District and 12 percent in the Western District.
Robberies are down 3 percent in the Southwestern District, 4 percent in the Northwestern District and 12 percent in the Northern District. They’re up 20 percent in the Northeastern District.
Burrus said officers feel as if they are “dealing with a different mentality and a different culture” in Baltimore, in which teens are more willing than ever to engage in violent crimes.
Patashnick, of the state’s attorney’s office, said prosecutors and police have had some success in recent years disrupting youth robbery trends, such as teens targeting their peers around school buildings.
Still, he said, the volume of teen robberies is a problem, and has grown since he was an assistant state’s attorney about a decade ago, when more of the juvenile crime in the city was associated with drug dealing.
“Now what we’re seeing is a lot less drugs — a lot less drugs, it’s shocking — and we’re seeing a lot more robberies,” he said.
Patashnick said prosecutors often ask that teens who have committed violent crimes be detained, but sometimes the assessments used in juvenile cases to determine whether a youth will reoffend lead judges to put them back on the street.
He said the state’s attorney’s office is working to provide more support programs for kids to prevent recidivism.
Alston-Buck, of the Kids Safe Zone, said some kids are “stealing for sport” to blow off steam in a world where they are routinely traumatized, poorly educated, disrespected and given few outlets to expend their energy and frustration in constructive ways.
She said others are trying desperately to fit in on city streets where cash flow means cachet, so they rob a victim and then go out and buy the most popular pair of sneakers, or bags and bags of candy for their peers.
“They want to be the man on the block,” she said.