Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh (D) marches in the Mayor’s Annual Christmas Parade in the Hampden area Dec. 3. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

Their city battered by violence, the trio of radio hosts demanded that their guest, Mayor Catherine Pugh, explain why residents should not move to the suburbs "as fast as possible."

"This city is slipping away," a host insisted recently on FM station 98 Rock.

Her words measured, the mayor spoke of the hurdles she faces trying to bolster an understaffed police force. "Do you know how long it takes to get a police officer on the streets?" she asked.

"Why would I know?" host Scott Reardon snapped. A week earlier, a friend of his, a popular Baltimore bartender, was killed during a robbery.

"Let me just —," the mayor began.

"Let me talk," Reardon said. "You've talked enough."

More than two years after rioting shook Baltimore, this city is beset by a surge in homicides and shootings, prompting city leaders to work feverishly to reassure residents who feel demoralized and afraid.

At the center of the crisis is Pugh, 67, a Democratic former state senator, public relations marketer and children's book author now playing the role of wartime mayor, straining to salve the hopelessness pervading many neighborhoods.

Traveling the city, the mayor touts new anti-crime initiatives, eager to cast her administration as in command. But as the death toll from homicides mounts, her constituents are as likely as not to have relinquished the idea that anyone can halt or even contain the city's violence.

"I've never seen the despair at this level," said A. Dwight Pettit, a longtime Baltimore defense lawyer. "Everybody's in a state of fear."

The mayor herself declared crime "out of control" as homicides surpassed 300 for the third straight year. On Thursday, she hosted a vigil for the city's homicide victims, including five students from a single high school, a 97-year-old man slain at home, the brother of the police department spokesman and the grandson of a Maryland state lawmaker.

In November, a Baltimore detective who was to testify before a grand jury probing allegations of police corruption was shot in the head with his own gun; the case remains unsolved. The FBI rejected the city's request that it take over the investigation.

"We need help," said Clarence Mitchell IV, a radio host and former state senator who wants Gov. Larry Hogan (R) to summon the National Guard, as he did after the 2015 riots that followed the death of Freddie Gray from a spinal injury he suffered while in police custody. An African American from a prominent Baltimore family, Mitchell understands the sensitivity of a white governor ordering troops into a majority-black city.

"I know how toxic it is," Mitchell said. "But that's where we are now."

The city has had little respite since the 2015 rioting. None of the six officers indicted over Gray's death was convicted.

The Rev. Andrew Foster Connors, a community organizer, said he learns "almost daily" that someone in his church or the surrounding neighborhood "has been mugged, beaten or robbed."

"We're a city suffering from PTSD," he said. "To think it's not amplified by the violence is ridiculous."

Cranes and sirens

On a recent Friday, the mayor listened as three police commanders translated Baltimore's violence into numbers.

Arrests of juveniles for weapons possession had fallen 20 percent since 2016. Gun arrests had declined 15 percent. Police projected that homicides would surpass last year's total by 9 percent, a pace it was approaching as the final weekend of 2017 began.

"Our projections should not be our goal," Pugh insisted.

"The goal is zero," said Drew Vetter, the mayor's criminal justice director.

Baltimore is a city of jarring contrasts. Unemployment has fallen from 11 percent to 5 percent since 2010, and construction cranes dot the skyline. Yet swaths of the city are defined by blight. In some neighborhoods, gunshots and sirens are a recurring part of the soundtrack.


A window is cleaned at one of the old and well-kept houses along Thames Street in Fells Point, a historic waterfront neighborhood. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

Derelict houses in eastern Baltimore. In 2017, the U.S. Census Bureau released numbers showing that Baltimore’s population, which has been in decline since the 1950s, has shrunk to 614,664. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

Until Gray's death, 15 years had passed since the annual homicide count exceeded 300. Now the city has 30,000 fewer residents, and its per capita homicide rate is second only to that of St. Louis.

Police Commissioner Kevin Davis expected violence to "normalize" after Gray's death. But the rioting "emboldened" criminals, he said, including looters who ransacked pharmacies and pumped opioids into outdoor drug markets rife with heroin and crack.

"You can see 1,000 hand-to-hand drug transactions a day," said Ray Kelly, a community organizer, passing a thicket of dealers the other day in West Baltimore. "After the unrest, I saw it grow fivefold. There's no deterrence."

The indictments against the officers implicated in Gray's death, Davis said, made police fearful that aggression could cost them their jobs — or worse. Officers suffered their own PTSD, he said, driving down "proactive arrests."


Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis poses inside a vintage 1950s Ford black-and-white police car before participating in the Mayor’s Annual Christmas Parade. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

For many residents, the riot was rooted in the zero-tolerance policing policies of a decade ago that sent legions of blacks to prison, often on minor charges. The Justice Department concluded in 2016 that Baltimore police had engaged in systemic violations of African Americans' rights, prompting a consent decree under which the city would change its policing practices.

"There's a real mistrust between the police and community," said Lawrence Brown, a professor in the School of Community Health and Policy at Morgan State University. "There was never any real healing or reconciliation."

'It will not be 300 next year'

Pugh declared her candidacy for mayor five months after the riots. But her campaign might as well have been launched amid the unrest, much of which unfolded in what was then her state senatorial district.

For several nights, Pugh stood alongside Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) at Pennsylvania and North avenues, pleading for calm. "We need the media to move back," she ordered Geraldo Rivera, a moment captured on national television as protesters heckled the Fox News commentator.

Studiously composed, the mayor is not prone to bluster. At moments, she speaks so quietly that hearing her can be difficult. She often repeats a playlist of talking points, including that her phone rings "every time somebody is shot, every time somebody is killed, every time somebody is hurt, every time somebody is cut."

Over the summer, Pugh announced an expanded crime strategy that included outfitting patrol cars with computers and offering free tuition at Baltimore Community College. In November, she ordered the police to collaborate daily with agency heads to pinpoint locations needing resources. More recently, she touted private donations that will fund an antiviolence program to help juveniles.


Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh (D) poses with a cheering crowd while marching in the Christmas parade. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

Nevertheless, the mayor has faced criticism from the Baltimore City Council and community leaders that her strategy is anemic. At one point, Hogan questioned whether she was focusing enough on short-term answers.

"Our frustration is that we have called on her to create a crime plan, and what she produces looks more like a PowerPoint," said Foster Connors, the pastor.

Pugh, in an interview, bristled at the criticism, saying, "Do you need to see all the plans we put together?"

Asked to forecast the fall in homicides in the next year, she said, "It will not be 300 next year, I can guarantee that."

In early December, Pugh announced that new crime statistics suggested that her strategy was working, at least preliminarily.

"Violence is trending downward, and we're excited," the mayor told a community group.

She departed without taking questions.

'Nobody kill anybody'

On a Saturday, the mayor hosted what she branded a "Call to Action" at an East Baltimore recreation center, where residents could expunge prison records and meet representatives from city agencies and community organizations.

"Why isn't it more crowded?" a man asked Pugh, who found far more city workers and advocates than members of the public when she arrived.

At one table, a group known as "Baltimore Ceasefire" promoted what would be a novel idea in many cities: a moratorium on violence. "Nobody kill anybody," read the group's poster, a plea that it has twice issued on past weekends. "We're taking it into our own hands," said organizer Michelle Shellers. "If people start caring more, we can cut the murder rate."


Ralph Heard, 70, cuts the hair of Plummer Eaton, 58, at Mr. Do Hair Design Barbershop in Baltimore. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

Mr. Do Hair Design Barbershop’s owner, Lee Session, 75, outside the shop. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

Across the street, Christmas music wafted from speakers on the exterior of a rowhouse, where Lee Session has owned a barbershop for two decades. Among his first decisions when he opened was to flood his high-crime corner with round-the-clock music — normally Mozart or Chopin, but holiday tunes during Christmas.

"That's the music that soothes the savage beast," said Session, 75. "It's a jungle out there, and that's how I control them."

He said he is not counting on Pugh or any mayor to contain crime, a subject he forbids his barbers, all dressed in tuxedo shirts, to discuss. "I can't worry about what another person can do," he said. "I love connecting with what I can do."

A block away, Michael Graham, 51, who spent 28 years in prison for dealing heroin, said opportunity is what matters. "I'm so disgusted with the neighborhood," he said, recalling a night when stray bullets smashed his car windows. "If you want to get these guys off the streets, you've got to get them jobs."

The mayor often speaks of investing in poor neighborhoods. Yet residents are frustrated by the pace of change. In West Baltimore, private donors and the city spent $4.5 million remaking the Western District police station, a renovation that included a public garden to help build ties to the neighborhood.

Still, the project rankles some who dislike the idea of helping an institution that they think has mistreated the community. They see more pressing concerns, such as repairing a tattered neighborhood football field.

"This would be something for the people who suffered from the Freddie Gray riots," said Marvin Cheatham, former head of the city's chapter of the NAACP. "The community has been let down."

Again and again, Pugh asks her constituents for something many have lost: patience.

"Change takes time," she said. Baltimore "is on its way to becoming a great city."

Until then, she welcomes any help she can get, including from weather that keeps people indoors and safe.

"I hate snow," Pugh told her advisers one afternoon as the weekend approached. But "I want snow."

The snow fell, but so did more bodies. Before the weekend ended, detectives were investigating two new homicides.


Friends and family members of Jim Forrester, who was shot and killed outside the Baltimore Tattoo Museum on Dec. 18 as he took a break, a vigil to honor those lost to violence in the city in 2017. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)