Over Memorial Day weekend in Baltimore, 29 people were shot, nine of them killed. It was an ominous start to a summer that would only grow more violent. In July, there were 45 homicides, marking the city’s deadliest month since 1972. By the end of August, 215 people had been murdered, a 56 percent increase compared to that same point in 2014. Technically, the spike reflected a trend seen this summer in urban areas across the country, but it also seemed to be a distinctly local problem.
In April, a 25-year-old African American named Freddie Gray died in police custody, sparking a night of rioting during which cars were set afire, businesses were looted, and over 200 people were arrested. In some respects, the city continues to smolder. In the last 30 days alone, Baltimore has averaged more than one homicide per day.
Justin George, a 38-year-old South Asian crime reporter for the Baltimore Sun, has closely followed the city’s struggle with violence for the past three years. Occupying the same position once held by David Simon, the creator of HBO’s iconic series The Wire, he has gained an up-close perspective on Baltimore’s complex dynamics. His articles have been both incisive and essential, such as when, during the riots, he reported from inside the police department’s headquarters. George watched as law enforcement officials feverishly worked around the clock to deconstruct what had gone wrong after Gray’s arrest. Here’s George describing the scene: “On one wall was a timeline that plotted Gray’s arrest and all of the police van’s stops. Each point on the timeline was outfitted with pictures of Gray, the officers who interacted with him at that location, time stamps and blurry screen shots taken from surveillance video. On another wall, autopsy photos of Gray stared back near a color-coded map listing all the private and public surveillance cameras along the van’s route. In the back was a table with Gatorade and water bottles.”
George’s work has earned him a yearlong fellowship at Marquette University, where he’s studying the causes of gun violence. The Trace spoke with George about his time working the crime beat in Baltimore and what’s at the heart of the city’s gun problem.
How did you wind up on the Sun‘s crime desk?
Honestly, I saw a journalism ad for the position. I’d been working for nine years as a reporter for the Tampa Bay Times, and I wanted a different challenge. My first thought, when I saw the ad, was David Simon had this beat. But when you start investigating, you realize crime is the most important topic in Baltimore. It dictates, for example, whether business growth is going to happen in certain areas, or whether you’ll get new homeowners. I was blown away by the amount of homicides that happen there. It’s not just a large number — it’s a population loss. I wanted to know who those victims were.
Can you give an example of what that population loss looks like?
I visited a block a couple years ago where three homicides occurred in one year. It’s a very short block in West Baltimore with maybe 20 or 30 homes. This was 2013. I just remember it was so bad that police had gated it off — they had bike rack fencing on both sides of the street, a mobile command unit set up, and a cop that patrolled 24 hours a day. The cop would check your ID before you entered the block. The residents were actually thankful for this. I think it was meant to let people know that the problem was being taken seriously. Two of the homicides had taken place within days of each other.
How often do murders get solved in Baltimore?
It’s only at 40 percent as of this June.
When a homicide clearance rate is that low, what does that do to the community?
Baltimore already has a reputation for being a “no snitching” town, where witnesses are intimidated and people don’t cooperate with police out of fear. That’s one reason people won’t talk, because a lot of the time these suspects are still on the street, and witnesses don’t want to do anything to endanger themselves. If the clearance rate is that low, it does little to address that feeling of, Hey, if I talk, I may be next.
Would you say that Baltimore has a gun problem?
It certainly has a drug problem, but I can’t really say if it has a gun problem. Still, the number of homicides in the city would tell you there’s at least a gun issue. Last week officers pulled a loaded Uzi from someone’s house. I mean, when do you hear about an Uzi?
If you stemmed the tide of guns coming into the city, would that change things on the streets?
It would probably help. But I think in Baltimore the problems are systemic. If you look around the city, there are 15,000 to 20,000 vacant row homes — entire blocks are vacant. And you don’t have jobs. And you have a heroin problem. It’s an economic issue, really. The environment of Baltimore can be bleak in a lot of neighborhoods. I’m in Milwaukee now, and people talk about this being a violent town — there’s been 100 homicides so far this year. But Baltimore has double that number.
Baltimore does seem to be more violent than urban areas with similar issues.
It has more organized drug crews and gangs. They shut down the Baltimore City Detention Center because, for example, a member of the Black Guerilla Family — a gang — was running it, acting like the overlord in there; he’d even impregnated one of the guards. What that says is there’s a level of organization here. Again, you have these crews and neighborhood gangs that have been around for quite a while, feeding in and out of the jail, and when you have that, people have enemies and there’s going to be violence. People go into jail, become part of the Black Guerilla Family, and come out even more organized.
Which of the citywide initiatives to help cut the homicide rate has been the most successful?
What everyone talks about most is these plainclothes cops, which are very controversial. These are detectives who are working in unmarked cars. They gather intelligence. When Baltimore’s homicides dipped below 200, in 2011, for first time in decades, one of the things pointed to were these units. They were chasing down leads, looking for guns and getting info on who has them. But a lot of black residents were being unfairly harassed. At the John Hopkins gun policy center they say that some units that are specifically trained to spot guns have shown effectiveness in other cities. But these units also run the risk of alienating the neighborhood.
Does reporting on homicide take its toll on you?
It usually doesn’t at a crime scene, but it does when I meet family members of victims, the crying mother. I go home and I think about it, the pain and suffering of others. The Sun was able to reach the families of all 45 victims that were killed in July. When you have that many kids growing up without fathers, it’s tragic.
What have been your defining experiences while working at the Sun?
One was last year: I reported on a homicide that occurred at a home where a man was killed in his bed. I spoke to the neighbor, who saw the suspect leave the home. A few months later, I’m reporting on another homicide at a house on the same block, and it turns out it was the house of the neighbor I had spoken to previously — the neighbor had been killed. These weren’t related incidents, but it’s like, only in a city like Baltimore could you have next-door neighbors getting killed.
Another time I interviewed a mother whose son was killed in a robbery. It was unsolved. This was her second child killed in 20 years. Both were killed in the city, and both cases were unsolved. That really floored me.
And one more: I reported on a story where a triple shooting had occurred. I talked to a neighbor there. There was such a commotion, he said, that when the cops came it woke him up. He said he videotaped the cops swarming into the neighborhood. After I mentioned that detail in my story, he called me back days later. He said people were threatening his house and that someone had shot at his daughter; they all believed he’d videotaped the shooting itself. This happened because of my naivety. I pitched writing a story about it, but we wondered if that would make more of a problem for him. I’m now very careful when I deal with witnesses. What I’d written had put someone in harm’s way.
How would you describe Baltimore’s gun culture?
For some people, it’s just a way of life; the gun isn’t being carried around as bravado. Most of the homicides occur at close range, on the street. Usually they’re targeted shootings. It could be because organized crews want to make sure they’ve taken care of their target. It could be because Baltimore is an urban city that’s walkable, compared to Los Angeles, where there are more drive-bys.
Do you think Baltimore police are doing everything they can to curb violent crime?
Not this year – statistics show that. This year is a culmination of all the city’s problems: the segregation issues, people feeling that they’re marginalized, targeted, and harassed. All these issues have sort of percolated. Police have to do more than curb violence; they have to get the city on their side. And that’s a big struggle. You thought, after the riots happened, that there would be a lull. But that’s not what happened. The homicide rate skyrocketed.
Why do you think the shootings didn’t ever slow down?
The looting drove a lot of the violence. We had issues where people were trying to bootleg merchandise, and other people were trying to rob them. They were saying, “You got this for free, you shouldn’t be selling it for this price.” And then there was this political tension in the city, which was driving down morale on the police force. We wrote stories about how some members of the police union even said they were in a slowdown — they weren’t enthused about their jobs. They thought the prosecutor overreached (by indicting six police officers in the death of Freddy Gray). People who had aggression to take out realized the cops were reticent. But it’s worth pointing out that that the homicide rate was going up before Freddie Gray.
So what can be done to turn things around in Baltimore?
I can only speak to what the residents tell me. And they tell me repeatedly that there aren’t enough things for you to do on the streets. They say that they want more recreation centers; they miss the different athletic leagues and getting youths involved with good influences. And there’s certainly that notion that a lot of these kids need people who are rooting for them. And when I say kids, I’m talking about teens here. I think if there’s a boost in the economy, you’ll see a change. But I want to express, I’m not an expert in any of this — I’m just a humble journalist. But I do think people underplay the poverty in the city. They really don’t understand it.
[Photo: AP Photo/Patrick Semansky]