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WYPR Newsroom Series:On The Watch: Fixing the Fractured Relationship Between Baltimore's Police and Its CommunitiesUp With Neighborhoods: A Southwest Baltimore PartnershipRockets' Red Glare: the War, the Song, and their LegaciesDeconstructingVacantsSparrows Point: The Plan, The Cleanup, and The PromiseCommon Core: A Work In Progress

On The Watch, Part 6: Baltimore's Homicide Numbers Spike As Closure Rate Drops

Baltimore's homicide rate rose last year while fewer cases were reported solved.  In 2015 the homicide rate rose more than 60% from the previous year.  In 2014 there were 211 homicides reported.  The number in 2015 was 344.  At the same time fewer homicide cases were reported solved.  The percentage of homicides solved by the police is called the clearance rate.  Last year, Baltimore saw its clearance rate drop from 57% in April to 40% in June and then it dropped to 30% in August which is where it hovered for the rest of the year, an arrow pointing in the wrong direction for the city.

The relationship between the city’s dramatic rise in homicides and the drop in the number of those solved might have something to do with each other.

Detective Joseph Chin is trying to sort that out as he investigates the murder of 24 year old Maurice Kosh who was found shot to death in his car on January 20th. Chin needs some leads on the case.  So, one day recently he trudged through the snow, wearing a tan trenchcoat and holding an umbrella against a heavy downpour.  He knocked on every door of the block in West Baltimore where Maurice Kosh was killed– trying to find a witness.

At one rowhome, a small, middle-aged woman with short hair and a pink sweater opened her white metal storm door and poked her head out.  Detective Chin handed her a flyer.  She smiled and closed the door.

The flyer advertised the metro crime stoppers phone number and a message to potential tipsters. It read, "If your tip to the hotline leads to an arrest and indictment in this case, then you may be eligible for a cash reward of up to $2,000".

So, is this kind of police work effective?

Chin says every community is different and he doesn't canvas for every case.  But, as another detective said to him, "you won’t get anything if you don’t try," so he’s pounding the pavement. Chin's been with the homicide unit for four years and has worked on approximately a hundred cases. It's nearly impossible to solve a homicide without a witness - a witness who will testify.

But, he says, it's been harder to find witnesses since last April, when Freddie Gray died as a result of injuries incurred during an arrest. Many in the city protested police misconduct and brutality. And on the day of Gray's funeral, a riot erupted on the streets.

By the next month shooting deaths had doubled. At the end of 2015, non-fatal shootings were up by 72% and homicides were at the city’s highest per capita in its history. Detective Chin says some neighborhoods "have been more resistant". But what, exactly, they're resistant to he doesn't say. Are they resistant to talking to the police because they’re scared? Or are they resistant to the idea that cooperating with the police will help their neighborhood?

Looking Into The Numbers

In 1993, when the War on Drugs was at its height (and the population was about 720,000), Baltimore had 353 homicides, nine more than last year. But 73% of those cases were solved, according to the FBI as opposed to last year's clearance of just 30%.

"We can't do very good police work in Baltimore.  All we can do is jack them up," David Simon was a crime reporter for The Baltimore Sun in the 1980s and 90s. He's an author and the creator of the HBO series "The Wire."

The good police work Simon's talking about involves getting people on the streets to give you tips. Tell you something.

"We broke the policing culture by throwing the drug war up on the backs of law enforcement," Simon says the distrust between cops and the community goes back farther than the unrest after Freddie Gray's death last year.  It began in the 1980s with the War on Drugs.

The message from politicians to police leadership down to police rank and file was clear, Simon says.  Their orders were "Go do battle and clear the corners. This is a war. Treat it as a war." It was an unenforceable prohibition, he points out. And now we see the results of this policy and the policing strategies that followed, he says. "The police - they're despised for going to war against the communities.   And then they want to phone to ring on the homicide unit when somebody kills somebody? Good luck."

When Major Donald Bauer of the Baltimore Police Department’s Homicide Unit looks at the high numbers of homicides in 1993 and 2015, then compares the clearance rates, he scratches his head.  The Homicide Unit was closing cases at a very high rate in 1993 (though not the highest on record for city) and in 2015 was closing cases at the lowest on record.

Maj. Bauer wasn't in the Homicide Unit in 1993, but says he talks to retired detectives who tell him, "when they came in from the field, they had a couple telephone calls telling them who did what."  Bauer says there’s a move to go back to the old model of beat cops and that should help.

Since Freddie Gray's death in April, the usual police response has been -  "when the community gets fed up with the crime, they’ll come forward as witnesses."

But others find that the community is fed up – but with the police.

In 2013, Orlando "Magik" Gilyard came home from a five year sentence in federal prison. He's a gang member...a Blood but says he's out of the criminal lifestyle, trying to stay on the straight and narrow.  "They want to use you up for what you got," he says about the police. "They don’t really care about us," Gilyard says people have good reasons not to trust the police. He says he's lived in drug-infested neighborhoods all his life – and there are a lot "hopeless people out here." But at the same time, he's witnessed the police strip search neighbors in public, as they search for drugs, humiliating them.

When people come forward as witnesses, he says, they often face retaliation. "Even little guys out here who are stool pigeons for the police – they throw them out to the wolves and the streets swallow them up.  It's just the Baltimore Police Department.  It's all about them and their agenda and their quotas and everybody knows this." Gilyard says, "it's a very big line between the community and the police. It’s a big gap –they don’t trust us and we don’t trust them. Sadly."

All this makes the inner city neighborhoods that much more dangerous.  Dr. Cynthia Lum is the Director of the Center for Evidence-Based Criminology at George Mason University.  She’s also a former Baltimore cop. Lum says the 63% spike in homicides in one year is statistically dramatic. But the drop in clearance rate is what she finds shocking.

Lum says research shows connections among homicides, clearance rates, and police- community relations. She says, "when people feel police are legitimate, they are more likely to comply with the police and more likely to feel satisfied…and potentially, more likely to cooperate with the police."

Orlando Gilyard, the gang member who lives in West Baltimore says many people don't expect the police to find suspects.  A lot of times, he points out, the streets "take care" of the streets.His cousin was one of last year's 344 homicides. And a year before that, his brother was killed. Gilyard says his two cousins were killed down the street from each other. The murderers were never arrested.  But, Gilyard says, that doesn’t mean they weren’t caught.

This year-long special series is funded by the Bendit Family Foundation, Sig and Barbara Shapiro, The Zanvyl and Isabelle Krieger Foundation, and the Open Society Institute – Baltimore.