A 27-year-old man who was fatally stabbed Saturday evening became Baltimore’s 300th homicide victim this year, a gruesome milestone for a city that has struggled to curb rampant violence of a kind not seen since the 1990s.
Four hours later, the tally reached 301.
The man who became No. 300 was found with torso wounds about 4:45 p.m. on West Baltimore Street, police said. The next victim, a 22-year-old man, was found shot in the chest on Annapolis Road just after 9 p.m..
The swelling death count has both disturbed and confounded a community still struggling to recover from riots that followed the death of Freddie Gray in April.
“Three hundred lives wasted,” said Tessa Hill-Aston, president of the Baltimore branch of the NAACP. “All those people had potential.”
Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis released a statement saying that public safety in the city “requires sustainable partnerships founded in mutual trust and respect.”
“This challenging moment shall pass if we reject blame and embrace the hope, dreams and promise of a great American city,” he added, writing that “2015 will not define us.”
The commissioner had expressed similar sentiments earlier this month outside the home of Kendal Fenwick, homicide victim No. 295, who police believe was shot by drug dealers angry about the homeowner building a fence to prevent them from cutting through his yard. Davis, who called the killing an execution of a man trying to protect his family, railed against a culture that has become numb to such savagery.
Homicides have risen in several U.S. cities this year. In the District, 143 people have been killed, up from 90 at this time in 2014.
Police chiefs nationwide have, in part, blamed the bloodshed on felons who have a history of violence.
Baltimore last recorded this many homicides in 1999, ending a decade-long run that branded the city as one of the nation’s most deadly. “Fewer than 300 homicides at last,” a Baltimore Sun headline proclaimed in 2001 about the previous year, which ended with 262 killings.
The number dipped to 197 in 2011, creating a new threshold for measuring the vitality of a city that in the 1990s — amid unprecedented violence fueled by an epidemic of crack and heroin use — lost residents who feared for their safety.
Back then, the city earned a number of ugly nicknames, including “Bodymore,” a term still heard today. Playing off a slogan once written on every park bench in town — “the city that reads” — some police began to call Baltimore “the city that bleeds.”
Officials and residents now worry that Baltimore may return to those levels of violence beyond 2015. In some months this year, Baltimore averaged more than one slaying a day.
But what is causing the carnage — and how much Gray’s death has influenced the climate — remains unclear.
After being chased by police, Gray, 25, was taken into custody April 12 and suffered a severe spinal injury while unrestrained in the back of a police van, according to prosecutors pursuing criminal convictions of the six Baltimore officers involved in his arrest.
The riots and looting that followed were so destructive that the mayor implemented a citywide curfew and the governor called in the National Guard.
Perry Hopkins, a recovering drug addict and a community activist, said much killing has been driven by anger in neighborhoods that have long felt neglected.
“Not knowing how to express that anger . . . it’s being expressed in open, rampant violence,” said Hopkins, an organizer for Communities United.
“A lot of it is done in fear,” he said, saying young men are often compelled by a belief that, “I’ve got to get him before he gets me.”
The police union has complained that the aftermath of the riots, during which they say officers were ordered to “stand down” amid the mayhem, has allowed the violence to swell. In part because the six officers were charged in Gray’s death, the union said, the 3,000-member force is so demoralized that many are afraid to confront criminals.
That “Ferguson Effect” has been debated from the police union halls to the upper reaches of the FBI as officials sort through a trying year for law enforcement.
In Baltimore, 300 homicides had long been a symbolic threshold. In 1999, Martin O’Malley, then running for mayor, took office on an anti-crime and pro-police platform, famously promising to reduce the annual figure to 175. The closest it got was the 197 in 2011, four years after he left City Hall.
In 2012, as Maryland’s governor, O’Malley told the Baltimore Sun that he remembered people laughing at his ambitious goal.
“There were many so-called smart people who said you’ll never be able to do it. It’s Baltimore, that’s the way it is,” he recalled.
Martin Weil contributed to this report.