Baltimore was unable in 2012 to sustain a significant milestone — the first drop below 200 homicides in a generation — but officials see reasons to remain optimistic that declines will resume.
As the Police Department's leadership changed, the city recorded 217 killings, about 10 percent more than the 197 in 2011, but still the second-lowest homicide rate since the late 1980s. Police statistics released Tuesday show that total crime and most categories of gun violence continued to decline.
"While we continue to make progress, I'm not satisfied that we've had an uptick in homicides," said Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. "I'm confident we will be able to continue the work of dramatically reducing crime to make Baltimore a safer city in the new year. But I do wish we had done better this year."
Two days in August helped illustrate the obstacles police face in reducing violence. On Aug. 16, gunmen shot brothers Troy and Euclides Manley and ransacked their Southwest Baltimore home. As detectives worked to identify and apprehend the killers, the cycle of retribution was already in motion: The next night, the mother and brother of a suspect were killed outside their home.
For the year, more than 60 percent of those who died in shootings were shot in the head, which experts say points to a high number of execution-style killings. That's the highest percentage in 10 years' worth of Police Department data.
Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts said the number of homicides was up largely because the city was the stage for two violent gang wars that were fueled by targeted attacks meant to kill, as opposed to unplanned bursts of gunfire that might have left victims wounded but alive.
"Those gangs were shooting each other in the head. They were assassinating each other," Batts said.
Batts, who spent his law enforcement career in California before taking the reins of the Baltimore force this fall, said the agency must respond by improving its intelligence-gathering in 2013.
"We have to rebuild and construct our intelligence piece, so we can focus on these micro-rivalries taking place that are leaving a lot of death and destruction behind," he said.
But the agency needs the public's help, he said. Referring last week to the percentage of homicides that have been closed by arrests, Batts said: "Right now, our clearance rate is at 48 percent. I don't think we can go higher until we build trust with the community and have the community participating as full-fledged partners."
The clearance rate includes cases from prior years that were closed in 2012.
At a recent vigil in Cherry Hill, Delaino Johnson, who works with the Safe Streets anti-violence program there, said residents must take responsibility.
"We need to police our own communities," Johnson said through a bullhorn, with the tearful father of 26-year-old homicide victim Michael Robinson Jr. standing nearby. "We are the strongest when we're together."
In recent years, nationwide trends have defied predictions that the weak economy would lead to spikes in crime.
In Baltimore, overall crime in 2012 was down about 5 percent from the previous year — amid a continued trend of fewer arrests, according to unofficial data. Arrests in the city have been on a steady decline since 2005, and the number of people detained and released without charges — an indicator of the quality of the arrests — has plummeted.
Gun crime, meanwhile, fell 6 percent from the previous year, according to police data.
The number of juvenile victims continues on a steep decline, with deaths of infants for the first time outpacing killings of juveniles related to street crime.
But the city's homicide rate remains a distressing focal point. Baltimore saw a double-digit year-over-year increase along with cities such as Chicago, Oakland and Detroit, while totals were largely unchanged in New Orleans, St. Louis and Philadelphia.
Killings fell to a modern-day low in New York City in 2012. Washington, which once had more than 500 killings a year, recorded fewer than 90 last year. Perhaps not coincidentally, the District of Columbia's population is growing and is expected to surpass that of Baltimore for the first time.
Gov. Martin O'Malley said he is not among those who chalk up Washington's crime declines to gentrification.
"I don't think there'd be gentrification if they were still at 500 homicides," O'Malley said. He believes Baltimore is "three, four, maybe five years behind D.C." in crime declines.
The increase in homicides in Baltimore last year came largely in the Eastern and Northwestern police districts, where there had been notable decreases in 2011, as well as from an uptick in the Northern District. Ten people were killed in the Harwood-Better Waverly-Barclay area alone, between the Northern and Eastern districts near Greenmount Avenue.
Batts attributed the increase in violence to warring gangs, saying that the prison-based Black Guerrilla Family was extorting other gangs, leading to a turf war between the BGF and the Bloods. But it was unclear how many shootings were gang-related — police often say publicly that they know of no motive for the attacks — and most remain unsolved.
The Police Department made arrests in several high-profile cases in 2012. Those included the disappearance of Phylicia Barnes, whose sister's ex-boyfriend was charged with murder in the North Carolina teen's death; the killing of 12-year-old Sean Johnson in 2011; and charges in a series of retaliatory shootings in East Baltimore, an investigation coordinated by a new major crimes unit in the state's attorney's office.
But city homicide investigators continue to struggle to close cases. And in some instances, police and prosecutors continue to clash behind the scenes, with prosecutors exerting greater oversight over when charges can be brought.
Among the year's unsolved cases is the stabbing death of 84-year-old Mary Hines, whose East Baltimore home was set on fire with her body inside.
Col. Garnell Green, who has led the homicide unit for the past year and will be moving to oversee the patrol division, said Hines' death was "deeply troubling to us all."
"Detectives have solved many of [2012's] murders and continue to make good progress," Green said. "However, in the case of Mary Hines, we are continuing to ask for the public's help. Someone out there knows what happened. ... We have some good leads, but we still need the public's help."
Other unsolved cases include those of Alonzo Gladden, 24, a sailor visiting family in South Baltimore while on leave from the Navy; Peter Marvit, a researcher for the National Institutes of Health shot in front of his Northeast Baltimore home; and 22-year-old Larelle Amos, who was killed outside a Northeast Baltimore party by a stray bullet. Police ask anyone with information on these or other killings to call 410-396-2100.
Batts announced last week a major reshuffling of the department's leadership positions — moves designed to focus on community outreach and intelligence-gathering. He has emphasized foot patrols, and the agency has started a partnership with state troopers in high-crime areas on weekends.
O'Malley said federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies are working together more and have never been better aligned.
"It would be nice if there were steady and mathematically predictable progress all the time, but sometimes that's not the way the real world works," O'Malley said of Baltimore year's in crime. "I'm hopeful that the new commissioner, after this long period of transition, will be able to restore the focus to violent crime reduction."
Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater contributed to this article