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‘Trauma-filled city’

As Baltimore’s homicide rate spikes, police and pastors struggle to explain and fight violent crime in their community

‘Trauma-filled city’

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

BALTIMORE—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?

Lee Love/Genesis

Detective Ryan Diener (Lee Love/Genesis)

DETECTIVE RYAN DIENER is navigating working in the police department and living in a high-crime neighborhood. The 36-year-old homicide detective joined the police force 14 years ago. Convicted about racial reconciliation and serving the poor, he also joined New Song Community Church (Presbyterian Church in America) and then moved into Sandtown a decade ago. He mentors teenagers in the neighborhood through a Young Life Bible study, and now he’s an elder at New Song.

“I work and I do church, and that’s kind of it,” said Diener, who isn’t married. “It’s enough.”

The violence from his daily job has intersected with his personal life. One boy who was in his Bible study, Taymen Brown, was murdered in Sandtown last summer at age 22. Diener had known Brown since his early teens. His case is unsolved.

Right now Diener is the primary investigator on a homicide that took place one block from his house. He knew extended family members of the victim and thought because he had built so many relationships in the neighborhood over the years that he would quickly find leads on the case. But so far, nothing.

At Diener’s desk in the homicide unit, he has a Bible by his computer, a taped-up note listing his primary cases, and accordion folders for cases currently in court. One of the detectives calls him “Rev.” A sleeping bag is rolled up under his desk, and he is usually in the office well before his shift begins. Potential witnesses come in and out of the office for interviews, and one wall has a board with the names of victims printed out in dry erase marker.

‘With the violence going on around you, it is frustrating, at times over-whelming. … We take it personally when we’re not able to solve a case.’ —Diener

I asked Diener why he thought the homicide rate was so high. He wouldn’t attempt an answer. He repeated my question to another detective, who shook his head. There were too many variables: ages, locations, times, life circumstances. Even if the victim was part of a gang, the murder might be over a girlfriend or a personal beef. As people take the law into their own hands, more are carrying guns, so situations can escalate into violence more quickly, the detective suggested.

Diener led eight homicide investigations last year, well above the recommended caseload. For him, the hardest part of the job isn’t witnessing gore every day, but feeling the burden of solving the crime on behalf of grieving family members.

“With the violence going on around you, it is frustrating, at times overwhelming,” said Diener just before starting his evening shift. “No one is sitting around eating bonbons. … We take it personally when we’re not able to solve a case.”

LT. COL. RUSSELL, a 37-year veteran of the Baltimore police force who was born and raised in Baltimore, believes he has an answer to the homicide problem: More community trust will lead to lower crime. He put that principle to work when he was commander of the city’s Eastern District in 2008, using community relationships to drive down crime rates in a violent area. He built relationships with gang leaders.

Now Russell, who is also a pastor, oversees the department’s community collaboration division, where his officers spend time building relationships all over the city. But he has struggled to get personnel or the proper structure to integrate community policing into the entire department. Most police leaders these days spent key parts of their career in the “zero tolerance” era of the 1990s, he said, and don’t know how to do community policing.

“Old heads like me, we came up when everyone was a community police officer,” Russell said. “Baltimore is bankrupt of relational equity. My job is to restore that.”

The Baltimore Police Department already has difficult work, but it has created some of its own trust problems. Federal prosecutors recently indicted seven officers for racketeering, among other charges. The officers allegedly stopped residents and stole money from them.

And last year the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) released an investigation showing that the police department had a pattern of making unconstitutional, discriminatory stops and using excessive force. In response, the city signed on to a series of police reforms with the DOJ, an agreement called a consent decree.

When Jeff Sessions became U.S. attorney general, he tried to halt Baltimore’s consent decree amid a review of Obama-era policies. The city and the police department objected. Mayor Catherine Pugh said halting the decree would “have the effect of eroding the trust that we are working hard to establish.” In April a federal judge ruled the reforms should continue because the DOJ had already signed the agreement.

Lee Love/Genesis

Rev. Rodney Hudson (Lee Love/Genesis)

BALTIMORE POLICE VAN INTERIORS now have cameras, and police wear cameras too. Complaints of excessive use of force are down. Arrests are also down. But to some in the city, that is evidence that the police have pulled back from policing.

“The police’s hands are tied,” said the Rev. Rodney Hudson, the pastor of Ames Memorial United Methodist Church in Sandtown. “[They] are … fearful that if they step over the line, we’ll get the riots again. So what’s happening now is because there’s a more relaxed approach to policing.”

Hudson knew Freddie Gray since he was a teenager, and tried to calm protesters when Baltimore descended into chaos after Gray’s death. He remembers taking a brick out of a young man’s hand and telling him to go home. He and Pastor Louis Wilson from New Song in Sandtown agree that police are trying to reform.

Lee Love/Genesis

Pastor Louis Wilson (Lee Love/Genesis)

“I do see some improvements,” said Wilson, who grew up on the South Side of Chicago and has experience with police and living in a violent neighborhood. “Murders are still going up generally because there’s not the fear of authority that there used to be.”

Pastors Wilson and Hudson are attempting to address the violence and heal spiritual wounds, yet churches in the community are tired. Within one mile of New Song in Sandtown there have been 292 shootings since 2015, according to data compiled by The Baltimore Sun. Of those, 107 were fatal. One shooting took place inside New Song itself last year, when a family not connected to the church was using the space for a funeral repast and a conflict arose.

New Song was founded three decades ago as a church with a range of community development arms, like renovating abandoned homes and opening new businesses. Wilson, who became pastor of New Song just before the Freddie Gray riots, wonders if the church got “distracted” from its primary mission.

“Suppose we had really evangelized 348 men who were sold out for Christ. Would that make a bigger difference than 348 homes that were built?” Wilson said. “We can do these other things, but it has to be directed toward our mission.”

New Song still does community development. The church just started classes using local entrepreneurs to train aspiring ones. And it hosts addiction support groups. But Wilson wants the church’s focus to remain on Bible studies and teaching people about Christ.

AFTER 13 YEARS, Juan McMahan’s murder case remains unsolved. Sharon McMahan thinks Juan’s friends must know who did it, but no one has come forward to share. Yet his mother hasn’t forgotten him.

The shot to Juan’s leg was significant to McMahan: She said it gave her son a moment to cry out to God before he died.

“The way we were brought up is when we cry out to the Lord, what did He do?” said McMahan, recalling the story of Peter walking on the water with Jesus and crying out when he began to sink. “And I believe he was given that chance.”

Today, residents of Baltimore are still crying out. One night in early April, Ames pastor Hudson was walking around Sandtown talking to people and evangelizing when a series of shots rang out. He and fellow pastors ran for cover. Hudson turned on his Facebook live feed and asked his parishioners to pray, the red ambulance lights flashing on his face. People on the street approached Hudson: “I need some prayer, pastor.”

Hudson, shaky, prayed for the corner where the shooting took place. It turned out to be the city’s 84th homicide death this year: 30-year-old Tyrone McMillian.

“It’s a scary scene, man, but you know God has everything under control,” Hudson said to his Facebook viewers. “Anyone who doubts for a need for the church to be here, you’re sadly mistaken.”

Just as he finished speaking, a young man came up and grabbed him in a hug. The man’s grandmother attended Hudson’s church, and Hudson hadn’t seen the man in years. Hudson prayed for him there on the street.

“When are y’all going to come back to church?” Hudson asked. “Maybe God had you out here so I could see you again. … You just come on back. Next Sunday.”

—Gertrude Too-Rom contributed to this report

Emily Belz

Emily Belz

Emily is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine based in New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emlybelz.


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  • VSKluth's picture
    Posted: Thu, 04/27/2017 01:39 pm

    Emily, two sections (LT. COL. RUSSELL; and BALTIMORE POLICE VAN INTERIORS) have duplicate paragraphs.  You might want to revise those sections.  Otherwise, good article!

  • VT
    Posted: Thu, 04/27/2017 03:49 pm

    I can confirm that, good eye. And good article.

  • Web Editor
    Posted: Thu, 04/27/2017 05:02 pm

    Thank you. It has been corrected.

  • RWA's picture
    Posted: Fri, 04/28/2017 06:14 pm

    “Murders are still going up generally because there’s not the fear of authority that there used to be.”  

    Where there is the fear of God and fear of authority He has ordained in civil government and in the home, there is an acceptance of personal responsibility for internal hatred and external violence, and the possibility of solution - forgiveness found in Christ alone.  We want forgiveness without fear of judgment, which is self-delusion.