Posted on December 28, 2018

As Police Struggle to Solve Homicides, Baltimore Residents See an ‘Open Season for Killing’

Wesley Lowery, Steven Rich, and Salwan Georges, Washington Post, December 27, 2018


As Baltimore has seen a stunning surge of violence, with nearly a killing each day for the past three years in a city of 600,000, homicide arrests have plummeted. City police made an arrest in 41 percent of homicides in 2014; last year, the rate was just 27 percent, a 14 percentage point drop.

Of 50 of the nation’s largest cities, Baltimore is one of 34 where police now make homicide arrests less often than in 2014, according to a Washington Post analysis. In Chicago, the homicide arrest rate has dropped 21 percentage points, in Boston it has dropped 12 points and in St. Louis it is down 9.

Baltimore is also one of 30 cities that have seen an increase in homicides in recent years, with the greatest raw number increase in killings of any city other than Chicago, which has four times the population. While homicide rates remain near historical lows in most American cities, Baltimore and Chicago are now both seeing murder tallies that rival the early 2000s.

The wave of violence here began not long after the April 2015 death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man arrested in West Baltimore and placed — hands cuffed and legs shackled — in the back of a police van. There, he suffered a severe neck injury and lost consciousness. He died in the hospital about a week later.

Gray’s death prompted massive protests that at times turned to riots. The years since have come with a documented officer slowdown — patrol officers say they are hesitant to leave their vehicles and have made fewer subjective stops of people on Baltimore’s streets. That, coupled with a crisis of police legitimacy as residents express distrust and frustration with the force, has fueled a public safety emergency in parts of the city, community leaders say.

“It’s an open market, open season for killing,” said Alston, whose son Tariq was murdered in 2008. “After Freddie Gray, things just went berserk.”

A dramatic shift in 2015

While there is evidence for and against a nationwide Ferguson effect — the theory that crime increased after 2014 as police faced more scrutiny following the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. — in Baltimore there is an indisputable Freddie Gray effect. As violence in the city has risen since 2015, the likelihood of a killer being arrested has dropped precipitously.

For most of the decade before 2015, Baltimore’s annual homicide arrest rate hovered at about 40 percent. Since 2015, the arrest rate hasn’t topped 30 percent in any year. And while most cities saw their arrest rates drop gradually, Baltimore’s decline was sudden — plummeting 15 percentage points in 2015, after Gray’s death, the largest single-year drop for any city already solving less than half its homicides.


{snip} In many cases, detectives struggle to find cooperative witnesses. Police grapple with community relationships still deeply singed by the unrest that followed Gray’s death. And, perhaps most crucial, the department’s homicide detectives are overwhelmed.

Each Baltimore detective, on average, now is responsible for nine homicide cases and, with other suspicious deaths factored in, about 31 total active cases, Tuggle said.

A Post analysis of homicides nationwide found that major police departments that have success in making arrests generally assign detectives fewer than five cases a year.


Community leaders and residents say that leaves hundreds of families who have been robbed of a loved one without a chance at seeing justice done. Of the 1,002 homicides between 2015 and the beginning of this year, just 252 — one out of every four — resulted in an arrest.


The killings, both solved and unsolved, are clustered in a small number of the city’s neighborhoods — even as the citywide homicide rate has soared, there are neighborhoods that are safer today than they were before Gray’s death in 2015.

The ‘butterfly’ effect

The neighborhoods that have seen the most violence are familiar to social scientists and experts in Baltimore: They fall within what is known as the city’s black “butterfly,” a set of neighborhoods that spread out to the east and west of the city’s center.

Homicides have soared in several neighborhoods since Gray’s death. Sandtown-Winchester, where Gray died, has seen 22 more homicides in the three-year period since Gray’s death than it did in the three years before he died. Southwest Baltimore saw its homicides rise by 35, and Greater Rosemont has seen 26 more since 2015.

In each of those neighborhoods, police make an arrest in fewer than 25 percent of cases, including 16 percent in Sandtown-Winchester.

These areas long have been among the city’s most economically depressed and, because of years of residential segregation, populated almost exclusively by low-income black residents.


Local criminologists and activists say that the surge in violence and the police department’s low success rate in solving homicides is directly linked to the deep distrust both highlighted and stoked by Gray’s death.

“This boils down to the relationship between communities and police,” said Tara Huffman, director of criminal and juvenile justice programs at Open Society Institute-Baltimore. “They need people to come forward, they need people to answer the door when they knock, and they need people to talk to them on the scene.”


First came Gray’s death. Then state’s attorney Marilyn J. Mosby announced that she would charge six of the officers involved, enraging the local police union and, some local leaders say, further encouraging officers to police less actively. Many Baltimore community leaders fear that shift helped drive the uptick in violence.

Prosecutors failed to secure a single conviction in the case — abandoning the prosecutions after a mistrial and two acquittals — prompting a new round of anger from residents who wanted to see officers held accountable.

In the meantime, city and police department leaders were locked in tense negotiations with the U.S. Justice Department, which launched an investigation after Gray’s death and ultimately concluded that Baltimore police regularly violated residents’ civil rights.


Then another policing scandal arose: Eight members of an elite “Gun Trace Task Force” pleaded guilty or were convicted in federal court of widespread abuses across Baltimore. An investigation found that officers set people up for baseless searches, stole property and money from residents, and carried toy guns to plant on people.


Tuggle acknowledged that the leadership shake-ups have had some impact on the department’s ability to prevent and solve crime.