‘Trauma-Filled City’: As Baltimore’s Homicide Rate Spikes, Police and Pastors Struggle to Explain and Fight Violent Crime In Their Community

Sharon McMahan stands near where her son Juan was killed. (Lee Love/Genesis)

When Sharon Blount McMahan talks about her son Juan, she first mentions his birth weight: 9 pounds, 9 ounces. He was chubby and overdue. McMahan, who lives in Baltimore, also remembers the last day of Juan’s life very clearly: He was 17.

Juan McMahan had recently gotten out of jail, and at the beginning of the day he apologized to his mother for all the trouble he had caused her. He went to hang out with friends for a birthday in East Baltimore later that night. He called her to come pick him up. Her husband was frying some chicken, and she told him they would drive over when the chicken was done.

When she and her husband arrived, a friend of Juan’s ran up to the car: Juan had been shot. Someone apparently had attempted to rob Juan and his friends that night, and killed Juan. When McMahan arrived at the site of the shooting, she saw her son lying “in the gutter,” shot in his leg and head. He was wearing a pair of blue and white tennis shoes she had just bought him.

Thirteen years later, she still remembers that scene—and still sees regular reminders of the violence that took her son’s life and continues to permeate her city: As McMahan and I walked out of an apartment building in East Baltimore, police had sealed off the parking lot and were coming into the building in bulletproof vests.

“It’s like it’s a normal thing now,” said McMahan. “But it’s not normal.”

Violence in Baltimore seemed to bubble after the protests and riots over Freddie Gray, an African-American man who died in police custody following a ride in a police van in April 2015. That year, Baltimore had the highest number of murders per capita on record, and 2016 took second place. As of April 1 homicides are up 60 percent from the same time last year.

The homicide rate increased 11 percent nationally in 2015, according to the latest FBI report, and local police data suggest the national rate rose in 2016 as well. The good news: The homicide rate is still historically low, well below the 20-year peak in 1996, and other types of crime have not risen overall.

Most of the violence is concentrated in a few cities beset with poverty and poor police-community relations. In 2015, Baltimore, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., accounted for the majority of the country’s homicide increase.

In Baltimore, police are having a hard time solving cases. The clearance rate for homicide cases was below 40 percent last year, according to The Baltimore Sun—meaning many of the perpetrators are still on the streets, continuing the cycle.

People in Baltimore blame the uptick in murder on a breakdown in the relationship between the police and communities. Fewer people are sharing information with the police, and they’re taking the law into their own hands. Other longtime Baltimoreans say the police are pulling back in order to avoid confrontations.

“People aren’t fearful of getting arrested or convicted,” said Baltimore Police Lt. Col. Melvin Russell, a Baltimore native. “This is a trauma-filled city, and most of us deal with trauma poorly.”

Sections of Baltimore are peaceful and prosperous. More people with good incomes are moving into the city. Bolton Hill, a majority-white neighborhood bordering the violent Western District, recently held a neighborhood association meeting. A police officer came to report crime statistics for the month: no homicides or shootings. Later the budget committee chair got up to report a problem: The price of crabs was going up, which would increase the cost of the group’s annual crab feast.

It’s a different story across the border in the Western District, where residents of the poverty-stricken neighborhood of Sandtown are more likely to worry about finding a job and staying clear of gang violence. Despite the challenges, some maintain a positive outlook.

“It’s not as bad as you think it is,” said Crystal Flowers, who started an early education center called Little Flowers in Sandtown. On a recent sunny day, the tiny children in her school were outside playing and laughing with bent hula hoops. The teachers take the kids on community walks so they can show them the good parts of their neighborhood. Still, the high murder rate touches everyone: Two months ago the father of a 2-year-old in Flowers’ program was killed.

The cycle of violence is exhausting for residents and city officials who confront it each week. But some hold out hope by going about their work: a police chief trying to build relationships with gang leaders, a homicide detective solving crimes, and local pastors preaching the gospel. Can they make strides toward breaking the cycle?

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SOURCE: WORLD – Emily Belz

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