The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As police struggle to solve homicides, Baltimore residents see an ‘open season for killing’

Daphne Alston, a co-founder of Mothers of Murdered Sons and Daughters United, sits in St. John’s Alpha and Omega Pentecostal Church on Dec. 9, in Baltimore. Alston's 22-year-old son, Tariq Alston, was murdered in 2008. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

BALTIMORE — Daphne Alston used to go to every funeral.

A co-founder of Mothers of Murdered Sons and Daughters United, Alston has worked with hundreds of families here, helping them navigate the pain, paperwork and logistics that come with each killing. But recent years have brought such a spike in violence that there are now too many funerals for Alston to attend. She has enlisted other members of her group to help her with outreach to the families of the slain, sometimes going to three or four funerals each day of the weekend.

A key component of that outreach was once helping families endure the legal proceedings that followed — and sitting next to them during the trials. But this year the court cases are scant. Alston knows of just a few killings for which anyone has been arrested.

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.

See Baltimore in The Post’s homicide database

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.

“Our clearance rate isn’t what I think it should be,” Baltimore Police Commissioner Gary Tuggle, who has been running the department on an interim basis since May, said in an interview. “We’ve got a really, really talented homicide unit, but we’re understaffed.”

Tuggle, who noted that violent crime is down from its peak levels last year, said that the depressed arrest rate is due to a combination of factors. 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.

“Our average caseload per detective is far higher than it should be,” Tuggle said. “Generally, if we can’t clear a case and get it off of the board within the first 25 days, chances are it’s going to be a lot longer. If we can ever get it off of the board at all.”

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.

Murder with Impunity: Where killings go unsolved

“It’s a cold case,” said Cynthia Bruce, whose son Marcus Tafari Samuel Downer, 23, was shot and killed in Baltimore in July 2015. “They have a suspect and the detective is confident that someone witnessed my son’s murder, but people are scared to come forward because of retaliation.”

Downer died in Northwest Baltimore, near his grandmother’s home. Bruce said that the word on the street is that her son had jokingly messed with — either kicking or sitting in — a neighborhood child’s stroller, prompting someone to summon the child’s father. When the father arrived, he brought a gun, Bruce said she has heard from neighbors.

Downer was shot 19 times in broad daylight. It has been three years; no one has been arrested.

“My son was killed senselessly and the person is just walking freely as if nothing happened,” Bruce said.

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.

“This structural violence contributes to the street violence that we see,” said Lawrence Brown, a Morgan State University professor who coined the term Baltimore butterfly in 2015. “What hypersegregation does is that it distorts social dynamics. You don’t have resources in these communities, and people have to fight for every little crumb. And then comes the violence that ends up on the evening news.”

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.”

“You cannot coerce that,” she said. “You can beg and plead all you want to. If the relationship is screwed up, you’re simply not going to get the help that you need to solve these crimes.”

And those relationships, never great, have been further damaged within a few tumultuous years.

In many homicides, police believe they know the killer’s identity but can’t get a witness to cooperate

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.

“This is a city where law enforcement has felt massively under siege, and where there was one of the worst police killings ever for which there was no accountability,” said Phil Goff, president of the Center for Policing Equity, which works with police departments across the country.

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.

“All of the things that could happen to a police department to create a culture of murder with impunity are all happening in Baltimore,” Goff said.

The department also was grappling with near-constant leadership upheaval, including three police commissioners just this year.

As the murder rate soared, Mayor Catherine Pugh (D) fired Police Commissioner Kevin Davis in January and replaced him with Darryl De Sousa, who in turn resigned just four months later after facing federal charges of failing to file tax returns. De Sousa later pleaded guilty to the charges.

Tuggle has run the show since May as an interim commissioner. The mayor’s choice to replace him, current Fort Worth Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald, is awaiting city council confirmation but the secretive process by which he was selected has raised skepticism that was further stoked when he refused to provide the Baltimore Sun with a copy of his résumé.

“We have an unstable department,” said Ray Kelly, chief executive of the No Boundaries Coalition of Central West Baltimore, an activist group that has been involved in police reform efforts. “It’s just a whole lot of chaos that we have to get beyond before we can start seeing any change.”

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

“The department really needs a level of continuity, and I’m really hopeful that going forward they’ll get that,” he said.

Tuggle also emphasized strides he believes the beleaguered department has made in the months since he took over. He said homicides are down about 10 percent from last year, and that in recent months violence has begun to decline even in some of the city’s most difficult zones.

For that, Tuggle credits the city’s violence reduction initiative, in which city agencies work to focus social services and resources on the city’s most violent neighborhoods, meeting at 8 a.m. daily to strategize.

“I certainly see the relationship between the community and the police improving. I’ve seen substantial improvement since I’ve been here,” Tuggle said. “There is a sense of urgency on the police department’s part to get justice for each and every victim that is out there.”

But as cases go unsolved, a growing roster of family members of the slain are frustrated with what often feels to them like an inadequate effort to bring them closure.

“When people have been traumatized and they don’t get the justice that they need, it makes them distrustful,” said the Rev. Andre H. Humphrey, commander of the Baltimore Trauma Response Team, a group of chaplains that helps police respond to violent crime scenes. “Not just of law enforcement, but of everyone.”

In New Orleans, a mother surrounded by homicide fears for her last child

Skepticism and frustration

On the second Sunday afternoon of every month, a dozen or so mothers and fathers of homicide victims gather around folding tables spread across the crimson carpet of a meeting room at St. John’s Alpha and Omega Pentecostal Church in West Baltimore.

The church sits a short walk from where Freddie Gray was taken into police custody, and just a few blocks up North Avenue from the CVS that was torched during the riots and has since been rebuilt. The rest of this area looks, more or less, unchanged from 2015: a desolate maze of boarded-up rowhouses, crowded liquor stores and underattended churches.

December’s gathering started a bit behind schedule, though, because Alston had trouble getting to the church. There had been a shooting just a few blocks away, so she had to detour around the crime scene.

Each meeting begins with an open floor, in which families of victims can give updates on their cases. Then guests have the opportunity to talk about community programs or upcoming events.

In 2016, the Baltimore Police Department hired two victim-witness advocates, who work with the homicide unit and aim to help families affected by slayings. At the recent meeting, the gathered mothers heard from James Dixon, one of those advocates.

He quickly sensed skepticism and frustration.

Dixon assured the group that the department is doing everything in its power to bring their loved ones’ killers to justice. He said his very job was a sign of those efforts — since Baltimore is one of just a few major cities with full-time victims’ services staff.

But it’s a challenge, he said. Often, the leads that the mothers hear on the street don’t pan out. In other cases, witnesses who share details with the family of the slain clam up when police approach.

“It’s easy to beat up on the police and say that they’re not doing their job,” said Dixon, clad in a tan suit and yellow bow tie, as he paced the front of the room. “At the end of the day, if there’s not a witness . . . ”

And then the debate began.

The gathered women peppered Dixon with questions, prompting round after round of disagreement. The mothers said they feel like some victims are treated differently than others, but Dixon insisted that’s not true. Dixon suggested that the community needs to be more cooperative with police and with prosecutors. The mothers seemed unconvinced.

After about 2½ hours, the meeting adjourned, with Alston even more dissatisfied than she was when it began.

“People are losing their children every single day, and everybody profits off of our pain but nobody wants to hear our cry,” Alston said, downtrodden as she put on her coat and headed out the sanctuary’s side door. “I guess we have to just keep going to funerals.”

Rich reported from Washington. Kimbriell Kelly and Ted Mellnik in Washington contributed to this report.

The Post has mapped more than 52,000 homicides. This is where killings go unsolved.

Explore The Post’s homicide database

Killings of black people lead to arrests less often than when victims are white

In Sacramento, trying to stop a killing before it happens