During the first weekend of February, Baltimore resident Ralph Moore joined hundreds of others outside in the freezing cold with a simple request: that nobody kill anybody.
Moore is the vice president of By Peaceful Means, a nonprofit that works with at-risk youth to teach them about conflict resolution. “People in Baltimore are angry,” he told The Intercept, referring to the city’s spike in violent crime. “I grew up in West Baltimore. For years, I wondered, When is this going to blow? The anger is there. People don’t have jobs. The housing is crappy. The system works against them.”
Moore was speaking from a sidewalk vigil, one of dozens of events organized that weekend, under the banner of Baltimore Ceasefire. The goal for the city, which saw a record-high murder rate in 2017, was to go three full days without a homicide.
This effort was part of a larger grassroots movement that began last August, when local community leaders organized the first-ever Baltimore Ceasefire. That one lasted less than two days and ended in tragedy. The second Ceasefire weekend, held in November, ended in less than a day — when an off-duty D.C. police officer was murdered.
But on their third try, organizers found success. The city went the full 72 hours without a murder.
The question now is, what next? What must happen to address the violence going forward?
While the systemic economic factors that have historically driven strife in Baltimore are fairly well-understood, the reasons behind the city’s murder spike over the last three years have been far murkier.
Baltimore saw 341 homicides in 2017, 318 in 2016, and 344 in 2015. By contrast, the average rate for the prior four years was 214, and the city hadn’t even seen 300-plus murders in one year since the 1990s. To put all this in perspective, New York City — a city with nearly 14 times the population of Baltimore — saw 290 murders in 2017.
Police data released in January and analyzed by the Baltimore Sun provides a window into who was killed in 2017. Ninety percent of homicide victims were black, and 90 percent were male. The majority of the killings occurred among young adults, with 65 percent of victims falling between the ages of 18 and 34.
Most victims and suspects also had some interaction with the criminal justice system. “Eighty-six percent of the victims and 85 percent of the 118 suspects identified by police had prior criminal records,” the Sun reported.
Different theories have arisen to explain the spike in Baltimore homicides and shootings. Some nod toward larger systemic factors — ranging from widespread deindustrialization and high poverty, to a large illicit drug trade and a lack of quality infrastructure.
However, many residents remain dissatisfied with these sorts of explanations. After all, they say, Baltimore did not grow considerably poorer in the last three years, or become more segregated. The socioeconomic conditions that have fostered decades of crime and hardship appear virtually the same. Something else must be going on.
One relatively controversial rationale comes from Peter Moskos, a former Baltimore police officer who now teaches at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Moskos blames the increase in homicides on what he calls the “Freddie Gray effect.”
According to this explanation, Baltimore’s police became far less aggressive in both stops and arrests following the protests and riots that came after 25-year-old Freddie Gray died in police custody in April 2015. The “Freddie Gray effect” is a close cousin of the “Ferguson effect,” the polarizing theory that suggests that anti-cop rhetoric creates a climate in which police can no longer effectively do their jobs. The “Ferguson effect” was first coined by Heather Mac Donald, a conservative political commentator, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed in May 2015.
“Murder went up by two-thirds after the riots, and it’s basically stayed there,” Moskos told The Intercept. “Policing changed because of the riots and [State Attorney Marilyn] Mosby’s decision to criminally charge six officers in Freddie Gray’s death. While Baltimore has many systemic problems, not one of those changed on April 27, 2015. Policing stopped being proactive by design.”
Moskos points to a considerable decline in arrests to bolster his “de-policing” theory. There were 39,654 Baltimore arrests in 2014, compared to 25,820 arrests in 2016, with homicides jumping from 211 to 318 in that same period. And last year 88 percent of homicides in the city were committed with a gun. But by November 2017, according to the Baltimore Sun, gun arrests were down 67 percent from the previous year. (This situation was compounded by the dissolution of the city’s Gun Trace Task Force, a unit disbanded after revelations that it was operating as a corrupt rogue entity, engaging in illegal activities such as drug dealing, cover-ups, and robbery.)
So beat cop reticence could be a factor. But homicides and shootings in West Baltimore were on the rise in 2015 before the unrest — though they certainly accelerated following Gray’s death. Some say the problem is more a breakdown in community trust, with fewer tips and leads from local residents to help cops solve murders. The Department of Justice launched an investigation into Baltimore’s police department just weeks after Freddie Gray’s death, and produced a damning 164-page report 15 months later. The DOJ investigation showed that the BPD routinely engaged in unconstitutional and callous policing. In other words, it’s possible the police might have scaled back some — but their deteriorating relationship with the city may have also been a reason why. (The city has since entered into a consent decree with the DOJ to reform its corrupt practices.)
John Pfaff, a criminal justice expert at Fordham Law School, cautioned that it’s too early to tell what’s causing the increase in violence. “Other cities have seen a decline in arrests without an increase in crime,” he told The Intercept. “That could be an explanation, but we’ve seen comparable changes in other cities without the same response.” New York City, for example, has had a steadily declining arrest rate and a declining crime rate.
Other explanations behind the rise in Baltimore violence include the fact that the weapons themselves have grown more lethal. “In Baltimore, one of every three people struck by gunfire dies, up from one death in every four shootings the previous decade,” the Baltimore Sun reported in 2016, in an expansive investigation into lethality and how it varies across the country.
Relatedly, Baltimore has also had serious trouble reining in illegal gun possession, an issue which Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, thinks is a major factor behind Baltimore’s homicide spike. He notes that illegal gun possession is highly correlated with the future risk of committing a murder. To address this problem, Webster thinks the city needs to have better arrest and prosecution of illegal gun possession (as opposed to harsher sentencing). In Baltimore, only about 40 percent of arrests for illegal gun possession end up in a conviction or a guilty plea. A Sun analysis found that about one-quarter of cases are dropped even before defendants go to trial.
Though the BPD improved its homicide clearance rate in 2017, Webster notes there are still many unsolved murders and nonfatal shootings in the city. “When shooters are not locked up, they are emboldened and ripe for being shot themselves,” he testified before state legislators last year.
Jeffrey Ian Ross, a criminologist who has studied these issues at the University of Baltimore for over two decades, also doesn’t view the arrest statistics and anecdotal reports that police have shifted their behavior as compelling evidence that de-policing is behind the increase in violence.
“Certainly the post-Ferguson climate in the United States can affect street stops and can affect arrests, but just because police have decreased either of those two tactics doesn’t necessarily mean that violent crime and homicide is going to increase,” he said. “People who are packing [guns] aren’t going to say to themselves, ‘Oh, well police aren’t going to arrest me now, so I can engage in violence and mayhem on the streets of Baltimore.’”
Maj. Richard Gibson, who has worked for the Baltimore Police Department for over two decades, also doesn’t think very highly of the de-policing thesis. In an interview with The Intercept at a recent Ceasefire event, he said he thinks that officers are “more focused now on the quality of arrests instead of the quantity of arrests.” In other words, he said, the BPD used to be “ judged upon the number of arrests we made,” but now the officers are focusing more on what kinds of arrests they make.
Ian Ross, the criminologist, has an alternative theory about the increase in violence, but he admits he hasn’t had the funding to thoroughly investigate it. Historically, much of Baltimore’s violence and policing have been driven by the illicit drug trade. In the aftermath of the Freddie Gray riots, Ian Ross said, it quickly became clear that there was a huge increase in that drug trade, driven by pharmaceutical products.
“We forget how many pharmacies were broken into, and the drugs that were stolen,” he noted. “And so there was a supply-and-demand, there was more supply on the street. … And that posed a challenge for the people who were dealing, a challenge that was met on the street corners with violence.”
Steve Walters, an economics professor at Loyola University, buys the de-policing argument but believes that the main reason it has contributed to violence is because of how it has given the illicit drug trade room to grow. “People saw opportunities and the police enforcement reduced the cost of trying to expand your market share and expand sales and that led to violence,” he said. “Once the violence starts there’s retaliatory violence and here we are.” Like virtually everyone else interviewed for this story from all political persuasions, Walter believes it’s time to re-evaluate the drug war that empowers Baltimore’s gangs. “The first way to address [the drug trade] would be to take a real hard look at the drug war and ask whether that’s counterproductive and whether it’s costing many more lives than its saving,” he said.
One official estimate said that one-third of Baltimore’s pharmacies were looted during the riots. Over 40 percent of the doses stolen were Schedule II opioids, meaning their potential for addiction and abuse are high. (Testimony from a recent Gun Force Trace Task Force trial revealed that some cops themselves plotted to sell stolen drugs from the pharmacies.)
Lewis is a former Peace Corps volunteer who was stationed in Niger. She studied public health at Johns Hopkins University and helped set up Maryland’s health insurance exchange. “We have a social problem, not a policing problem,” she said of the thesis that lax policing is responsible for Baltimore’s violence. “It puts undue responsibility on police to solve social problems, which is not their job.” Lewis said she did a ride-along a couple weeks ago, on a cold Friday night. “The officer that I rode with spent almost two hours managing a mental health crisis at a hospital emergency room,” she recalled, “where an army of nurses, and doctors, and social workers, and psychiatrists and counselors should have been deployed to help this person in distress — instead it was a police officer. It was completely out of order.”
Some politicians seem content to just chalk up the violence to anger among the community. During an interview with The Intercept at a Ceasefire rally in Baltimore, Council Member Mary Pat Clarke, who has served in city government since the 1970s, said her theory is that the protests and riots following Gray’s death set off a wave of anger and violence that still to this day roils the city.
“There were a lot of events that happened nationally. We had the Freddie Gray situation here in Baltimore then … and the rioting that went with it after the funeral,” she said. “It became, it just caught on. That reckless, who-cares-nothing-works kind of philosophy among a lot of people — which a lot of adult hoodlums took advantage of, including a couple police officers now in court. But it just started. As quickly as, I hope, will ebb out.”
As experts and civic leaders continue to debate the origins of the homicide spike, other Baltimore organizations are focused on community-based interventions, working to steer youth away from gangs, drugs, and violence.
One such organization is the Historic East Baltimore Community Action Coalition Youth Opportunity Center, known as Eastside YO, which aims to help young adults who have been ill-served by schools and the traditional career training system. Many of its clients have been incarcerated or had other brushes with the criminal justice system.
Zizwe Allette has been an instructor at Eastside YO for 16 years. He came to the nonprofit after teaching middle school in Baltimore. He invited The Intercept to sit in on one of his classes in early February.
“The kids, it gives them a second chance,” he said. “A lot of them are not able to function properly … in a traditional education environment, like the public school system.”
Allette works to help students get their GEDs and training to lock down stable employment. He says he has seen the unique challenges Baltimore’s low-income students face firsthand. “A lot of the kids are neglected,” he explained. “They’re in foster care. They’re not connected to their biological parents. They don’t know their roots.”
He blamed the drug war as one reason why many of his students have grown up in single-parent households. “Their fathers are in jail for ridiculous lengths of time. The kids aren’t being supervised, and they end up in school unready to learn,” Allette said. “If you ask a lot of the kids if they know their father, or if their fathers are involved in their upbringing, many will say no. Many don’t know where their dads are.”
As if to make his point, a student named Cyrus chimed in that he didn’t meet his dad until he was nearly an adult. “I didn’t meet my father until I was 17,” he said, “and I’m 21 right now.”
Eastside YO’s mandate is to take in 350 students annually, but it typically accepts more due to high demand. “We try not to turn anybody away because a lot of times, when they come to our doors, this is usually their last resort,” said Elizabeth Torres-Brown, an administrator at Eastside YO for the past 15 years. “They come in because they need support or somebody to help them … achieve goals, get housing. We have seen a very high influx of kids who are homeless.”
Torres-Brown described her organization — which is backed by city grants and private donations — as “operating on a shoestring budget.” She said it welcomed the private funds. “Do we need money? Hell yeah. We’re getting ready to open a homeless shelter for youth. It’s bad. Some nights I go home and I’m just praying that certain members stay safe. And when I see them on Monday afternoon, I’m like, ‘Thank you, lord.’ But could we use more funding? Hell yeah.”
During the interview, she paused to take a phone call. A smile passed over her lips. It was a former client, who had called to inform her that they had just purchased their first car.
Not all of Eastside YO’s clients are able to surpass the structural barriers they encounter in the city. Torres-Brown cited a former client who was a star pupil, stayed out of trouble, but was now finding it difficult to land a job because 10 years ago, he had a felony conviction for robbery.
(The city of Baltimore has formally banned employers from asking about criminal history before a conditional job offer is made, but such ban-the-box measures don’t fully eradicate the job discrimination.)
To Allette, the debate about whether the most recent spike in homicides is the result of a police pullback is missing the forest for the trees. “I have no idea if the police are backing off. I don’t think that policing is the issue. … Policing is like a Band-Aid on blood,” he said. “Why are we killing each other in the first place? Do we need someone else to come and tell us to not shoot another human being?”
“The best cure for someone who’s committing crimes is a job,” Lewis, the Maryland delegate, added. “To the extent that we can equip people for employment, make it easy for them to get to work by having a robust reliable transportation network, to the extent that we create incentives for employers to reach out to individuals and communities that aren’t well-represented in their workforce — the better off we all are.”
In West Baltimore, a block away from where police picked up Freddie Gray, a group of activists have been working to restore peace.
With the support of the Quaker-led American Friends Service Committee, these individuals established Tubman House, a space for community members to convene and support one another away from the gaze of gangs and police.
Tubman House was located in a formerly vacant row-house, but after a multi-year battle, the city demolished the building, just days before February’s Ceasefire weekend. The activists have pledged to continue the Tubman House work with a nearby farm they’ve been cultivating on a vacant lot since 2015. The activists say the farm acts as both an opportunity to teach people new skills and is something of a job-training program.
“The farm is free, you pick as you will, you know,” said Ausar Amen, the farm manager at the Tubman House. “Anybody who comes here and picks food is really a farmer in training. They learn how to harvest food. They become invested in it. They learn watering schedules, and they learn pest management.”
In their small patch of land, the activists work with high-schoolers, ex-felons, and others to grow foods like grapes and tomatoes. They even have a chicken coop to produce fresh eggs.
Research from Johns Hopkins University shows that nearly one in four Baltimoreans lives in a food desert. But Amen prefers a different term. “We like to refer to it as a food apartheid,” he said, “not a food desert. It’s a misnomer. There is growth, there is life in the desert.”
Eddie Conway, a former Black Panther who spent four decades of his life behind bars, works with both the Tubman House and the American Friends Service Committee’s “Friend of a Friend” program, which helps prisoners develop conflict-resolution skills. He points to the city’s bleak job situation as a driver of Baltimore’s violence.
“A large portion of the population, young people, and so on are unemployed,” Conway said. According to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate in Baltimore has been declining since 2010, but the kinds of jobs available to most Baltimore residents are still largely low-paying. More than a quarter of the city lived in poverty in 2016, compared to 12.5 percent statewide.
Baltimore-based artist Kimberly Sheridan remembers how she felt when, in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre, the federal government voted against expanded background checks for gun purchases.
“I remember April 14, 2013,” she explained to The Intercept during a recent Ceasefire event that featured her artwork. “I was absolutely stark, raving, insane, furious with Congress for not passing background checks after Newtown.” She learned that more than a million people had perished from gun violence between the shooting of John Lennon and the early 21st century. “And then my little mind started asking, Who are they? Who are they, what are their stories, what did they look like?”
A longtime oil painter, Sheridan set out to paint portraits of those killed by guns, including those killed in her city. She focuses on the lives, not the deaths, of those murdered. One painting features Matthew Thomas, an 11-year-old boy who was killed in 2015 after his father drove him to an empty parking lot and killed his son and then himself. The portrait features Thomas smiling alongside his telescope. The sixth grader was known for his love of science, and he had received both trophies and certificates of achievement for his academic work in astronomy and chemistry.
Giselle Morch lost her 20-year-old son Jaycee Webster in a homicide last year in a nearby Maryland suburb. She met Sheridan recently, who offered to paint Morch a portrait of Jaycee. When the painting is finished, it will be the 140th one the artist has completed.
“I’m just anxious to see the magic that Miss Sheridan will be doing,” Morch told The Intercept. “Speaking for other mothers, you always want your son or daughter to live on. You always want their memory to live on. … My son, I want Jaycee to live on. I don’t want him to be forgotten.”