As appeared in the Peake, October 19, 2021 issue
by Devin Crum
This could be the deadliest year on record in Baltimore County if homicides continue to pile up at the current rate for the rest of 2021. Though the county has experienced an increase in homicides each year since the “historic” low in 2013, a record high 49 murders were recorded in 2019. That total topped the previous record of 43 in 1992. But with 44 homicides tallied so far in 2021, as of October 15, and still more than two months left in the calendar year, Baltimore County is expected to exceed the pre-pandemic murder rate. Data available on the county’s website shows that, as of August 31, six of those homicides had occurred in the Peake’s coverage area with three murders occurring in Essex, two in Middle River and one in White Marsh.
Dave Rose, president of Baltimore County Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 4, warned on September 29 — when the tally stood at 42 — the county’s total could increase by more than a dozen if the current homicide rate holds steady through the remainder of the year. “We could be looking at another 13,” he said. In 2019, about one-third of the year’s homicides occurred in the final quarter of the year from October through December, according to crime data on the county’s website.
‘Flurry of Incidents‘
Baltimore County Police Department Spokeswoman Joy Stewart would not say how or if the local police force is preparing for a possible flurry of lethal incidents typical during the final three months of the year. But County Executive John Olszewski Jr. said he remains committed to constantly updating violence prevention strategies to keep neighborhoods safe and doing whatever is necessary to ensure Baltimore County remains a safe place to live, work and raise a family. “Jurisdictions across the country have seen tragic increases in violence this year and we have, unfortunately, seen similar trends in our own communities,” Olszewski said in an emailed statement, adding that the county has experienced “significant mental health-related violence, including two shocking mass shootings.” Just eight years ago, Baltimore County recorded an “historic low” of 19 homicides which officials said was the fewest since Jimmy Carter was president. Then-County Executive Kevin Kamenetz touted it as a success for policing, investigation and prosecution techniques and a sign that the county was “safer than it has ever been.”
‘Data is clear’
Stewart recently pointed to factors such as mental health and domestic disputes to explain the higher numbers of homicides seen so far this year. “The data is very clear,” she said, noting that 23 percent of the county’s homicides this year have involved a behavioral health component and another 40 percent resulted either from arguments that escalated into violence or during domestic disputes. Those also are factors that have been exacerbated by the ongoing pandemic and the associated decrease in access to counseling and other resource services. “That’s 63 percent of homicides falling into these categories. These are trends we’ve not seen before,” she said, noting that other large jurisdictions are reporting some of these trends as well.
But while the pandemic may be a contributing factor to the higher murder numbers this year, it does not explain why 2019’s total was more than double that of 2013 or why homicides have been increasing in the years between. The historic low and the general downward trend to that point were short-lived. Homicides jumped by six in 2014 and by five more each of the following two years, held steady at 35 in 2017 before falling again to 27 in 2018, and spiked in 2019. The county’s five-year average for homicides also has increased each year since 2014, from 23.4 that year to 35.8 in 2020. Stewart did not offer any explanation for the upward trend seen in the years prior to the pandemic.
However, FOP President Rose said one factor contributing to the higher homicide rate in recent years is the reduction in the level of enforcement resulting from the police department’s diminished officer ranks and high number of personnel vacancies. During the first eight months of 2021, 107 officers have retired and another 31 have resigned, according to Stewart. That compares to a combined 80 such departures in 2020 and an average of about 81 for each of the five years prior. From 2015 – 2019, BCoPD never had more than 102 combined retirements and resignations in a single year. “If you’re out arresting repeat violent offenders, then they’re not out in society with the ability to commit more crimes and possibly homicides,” Rose said, adding that having more police on the street in communities also can result in would-be criminals being better behaved. “Or there is a greater chance they could be apprehended for a lesser crime before the situation escalates to homicide,” he said. However, Rose admitted, “it’s luck of the draw” because it is difficult to know what effect policing has directly on a homicide rate.
For instance, if someone with no criminal record kills another in the heat of a domestic dispute, Rose admitted, “I don’t know that you could ever prevent that. But someone who has done multiple armed robberies with a weapon, those crimes tend to escalate.” Still, he added, “You may be able to get that person off the street but you’ll never be able to prove that you prevented that murder.” Also, the police union leader said today’s policing techniques and the public’s attitudes toward police are pointedly different today than they were in 2013. “People were policing differently and people were more respectful of police authority,” he said. “I don’t think you can say that [officers are] comfortable with being as assertive as they were in their enforcement actions. I know we’re making 1,000 less arrests per month [now] than we were in 2010.”
‘Police Based Initiative‘
In response to the spike in homicides this year, Stewart said BCoPD is focused on data-driven strategies. “On a weekly basis, commanders meet to discuss patterns and trends of crime and there is discussion on where to place resources and deployment,” she said. “As we experience an increase with people in a behavioral health crisis, the department is partnering with other community entities and stakeholders to ensure the best services are provided at the appropriate time.” One of those partnering communities is Essex. “Preventing these types of incidents cannot be done by law enforcement alone, which was why we have already taken action to expand behavioral health support,” Olszewski added in his statement. “Meanwhile, we have also launched a multi-departmental, place-based initiative in the Essex community — a community which has historically faced unique public safety challenges.”
‘Out of Control‘
Leah Biddinger, president of the Sussex Community Association in Essex, said while Essex is routinely one of the busiest areas in the county when it comes to police calls for service, and despite having three homicides in the area so far this year, murder is relatively uncommon. “I don’t think we’re seeing a spike in homicides in this area,” she said. “We’ve had drug overdoses and shootings but we haven’t had homicides, thankfully.” Just outside of Sussex, on Back River Neck Road, two homicides did take place in March when Essex resident Joshua Green shot and killed two women at a Royal Farms after killing his parents in their home in Baldwin, one of the county’s two mass shootings this year. Biddinger said crime, in general, is getting “out of control” but that it has a lot to do with “just the state of the country right now.” Additionally, she admitted there is no shortage of crime in Essex but attributed much of it as overflow from Baltimore City. “There’s so much unchecked in the city that people just do what they want here,” she said. “They feel like they can.” As of October 15, Baltimore City’s homicide total stood at 265, on pace to top last year’s total and to record more than 300 murders for the seventh year in a row, since 2015 when the city’s population was 7.5 percent larger. The city reported 335 homicides in 2020, 348 in 2019 and 309 in 2018.