Baltimore will record fewer than 300 homicides in a year for the first time since Freddie Gray’s death, a grim benchmark city leaders have sought to sink below for the better part of a decade.

This year’s decrease comes as cities across the country see similar declines in killings. Detroit, St. Louis, Philadelphia and New Orleans are all seeing significant drops compared to a year ago.

Even with the reduction — Baltimore will record its lowest homicide total since there were 211 in 2014 — the city’s murder rate remains among the highest in the nation and is similar to what it was in the 1990s, the last time killings consistently topped 300 a year. For comparison, neighboring Washington, a city with 130,000 more residents, is experiencing a spike in violent crime and will record close to the same number of homicides.

Although the reasons behind the drop are difficult if not impossible to parse, progress is evident. Many of Baltimore’s most historically violent neighborhoods have seen fewer killings, and the city should end the year with 270 or fewer homicides (there were 255 as of Dec. 18). It would be the city’s largest single-year drop in at least the last five decades.

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It also provides an opportunity for politicians to do something they do best: tout their accomplishments. While all readily acknowledge the contribution of others, each says they had a role to play.

Mayor Brandon Scott credits his implementation of the Group Violence Reduction Strategy, a combination of targeted police enforcement and expanded social services to people likely to take part in violence, as the driver behind the drop. U.S. Attorney for Maryland Erek Barron says his office’s increased focus on gun possession has taken would-be shooters off the street. Baltimore State’s Attorney Ivan Bates, who took office in January, says word of his prosecutors’ courtroom success is spreading through the streets.

The reality, according to researchers, criminologists and community organizers, is that it’s likely a combination of things driving violence down. One prominent police reform activist has his own theory: collective fatigue.

Scenes during the Safe Streets Peace Walk in Brooklyn on July 7, 2023. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

“It was just a matter of an entire city getting tired of this shit and everybody stepping up,” said Ray Kelly, executive director of the Citizens Policing Project.

It will take at least another year to determine whether the gains are sustainable, experts and officials say. If the decline continues, it’s proof something is working.

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Further progress is not guaranteed. The mayor’s hallmark group violence initiative could be in jeopardy if he loses reelection in 2024, turnover and inexperience within the police department have hampered enforcement efforts, the U.S. attorney could be replaced if a Republican wins the White House, and nonprofits specializing in violence reduction are straining to provide quality services under an increased workload.

Brandon Scott and his Group Violence Reduction Strategy

Mayors are always on the hook in Baltimore when homicide numbers rise, so when they go down they ought to get the credit, Scott said at a recent news conference.

Scott thanked police, prosecutors and other agencies for their contributions (everyone always thanks each other) but made clear that his leadership was key.

Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott addresses a crowd of a few hundred attendants, organizers and community workers at an anti-gun violence event organized by We Our Us, on Saturday, Oct. 21, 2023 in Baltimore, MD.
Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott addresses a crowd of a few hundred attendants, organizers and community workers at an anti-gun violence event organized by We Our Us in October. (Wesley Lapointe/for the Baltimore Banner)

“We develop the plan and the strategy,” he said.

This year marks the first time Scott fulfilled at least a portion of an ambitious goal set in 2021 when he pledged to reduce fatal and nonfatal shootings by 15% each year of his term. Nonfatal shootings are down about 6% and killings are down about 25% since this time last year.

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“Two years ago, when homicides were up in the city, everyone else was asking me ... ‘Mr. Mayor, why haven’t you reduced homicides?’ and I’m so excited now that everyone wants to talk about homicides again in Baltimore City and talk about how we are making that flip,” Scott said.

Scott says Baltimore’s homicide rate is unacceptable, that one murder is one too many, but he is also quick to say his Group Violence Reduction Strategy is working. His administration piloted the Group Violence Reduction Strategy, or GVRS, in the Western Police District in 2022, and the strategy – variations of which have been tried unsuccessfully in Baltimore twice before, in 2014 and the late 1990s – has seen results.

An alternative to traditional policing, GVRS identifies those at highest risk of gun violence and offers them social services, reserving punitive enforcement for people who refuse help and continue criminal behavior.

As of early December, a spokesperson for the mayor’s office that runs GVRS said 59 people had received services from nonprofit partners and “made the decision to step away from violence.” The actual number of people contacted through GVRS and seeking assistance is higher, according to figures from city officials and nonprofit providers.

Tameka Lynbrith, mother of Kylis Fagbemi, who was killed in the Brooklyn Homes shooting in July, digs the hole for her son's memorial tree at the Brooklyn Healing Day event. (J.M. Giordano/for the Baltimore Banner)

Since he became mayor, Scott’s administration has invested heavily in community-oriented programs, designed to draw at-risk people out of violent environments, coordinating them through the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement, or MONSE. Created in 2020 and expanded to dozens of staffers with the help of one-time federal pandemic aid, MONSE provides victim services, coordinates community outreach and administers the service side of GVRS.

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After promising results in the Western District a year ago — there was a 33% drop in homicides and nonfatal shootings from 2022 — Scott’s plan to aggressively scale the strategy to the rest of the city has not gone smoothly and is at least six months behind schedule. Even so, proponents of the strategy argue it’s still making a difference, despite leadership turnover and administrative challenges.

The group violence strategy has precipitated dramatic drops in violent crime before, in Oakland, California; Boston and New Orleans. Jeremy Biddle, a special adviser to Baltimore’s Group Violence Reduction Strategy, said the city has seen declines this year despite fits and starts with the mayor’s strategy, urging the city not to back away from the approach.

With the exception of Oakland, which saw nearly a decade of year-on-year reductions, no city has ever successfully implemented an approach like the group violence strategy over many years, Biddle said, making sustainability “the big nut to crack.”

“Anyone who wants that silver bullet or thinks it’s easy: Sorry, go elsewhere,” said Biddle, a violence reduction expert at the University of Pennsylvania. “We have ways to get it done; they’re just not easy.”

Baltimore’s top cop takes holistic approach

For decades, Baltimore’s response to violent crime has been to promise police crackdowns on violent street corners, essentially an attempt to arrest its way out of the problem at the expense of predominantly Black neighborhoods.

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Police Commissioner Richard Worley has spent his entire career in Baltimore, including the years when BPD was making 100,000 arrests a year. He said the more recent approach of prioritizing services over heavy-handed enforcement is a big reason violent crime is down, and he credited the department’s collaboration with MONSE.

Baltimore Police Commissioner Richard Worley rests his chin on his hands.
Baltimore Police Commissioner Richard Worley listens to a community member’s question during a town hall about public safety at the Edward A. Myerberg Center in Baltimore on Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2023. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

“You got to give the people, the young people especially, an opportunity to change,” Worley said in an interview with The Baltimore Banner. “And, in order to do that, you have to offer other services and other ways out through education, jobs and whatever else we have to do to help them. Obviously, some of them are just not going to take advantage of it, and then that’s when our part comes in.”

Although arrests in 2023 have increased about 5% compared to 2022, they are nowhere near years past. Worley, who took over after former Commissioner Michael Harrison’s surprise resignation in June, suggested changes to officer deployment, restructuring the department’s chain of command, promoting younger officers to roles of responsibility and improved morale all contributed to the department’s role in reducing violent crime.

Historically violent police districts saw significant reductions in the number of killings or at least maintained gains made at the end of 2022.

Significant declines were made in the Eastern and Northwestern districts, where homicides and nonfatal shootings fell 31% and 49%, respectively. GVRS was supposed to be expanded to the Eastern District in the fall, but it was delayed in part because the specialized police unit charged with implementing it struggled with high-profile departures and morale problems.

Although still below pre-pandemic levels, but not as low as in 2014, the Western District recorded a small increase in killings and nonfatal shootings, one of two police districts to do so this year.

The Southwestern, where GVRS expanded midyear, saw a 33% drop in homicides but recorded an increase in nonfatal shootings.

A press conference is held infront of Baltimore’s Peace Mobile near Glade Court in Brooklyn after the fatal shooting in July. (Jessica Gallagher/The Baltimore Banner)

Though the mayor projected the strategy would expand into the Central District in the first half of this year, Worley said that transition has yet to happen.

Officials say the decreases in killings and nonfatal shootings in areas without GVRS is a sign of progress, but vigilance will be required in 2024.

“Those are probably the two biggest things that I’m concerned about moving into 2024, maintaining the reductions in those two districts, because the Eastern is historically one of the most violent districts in the city,” Worley said.

A cop patrols the Brooklyn Homes neighborhood. (Jessica Gallagher/The Baltimore Banner)

Baltimore’s top prosecutors stake their claims

A recent campaign email from Bates made quite the boast.

“I’m proud to have done more to reduce violent crime in less than one year than the previous administration did in 8,” the Dec. 5 message read in part, a reference to the homicide totals during ex-State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby’s tenure. Both are Democrats. Bates’ campaign message was centered on violence and the perception that Mosby’s administration, which had a policy not to prosecute certain low-level misdemeanors, was soft on crime.

Baltimore City State’s Attorney Ivan Bates speaks at a press conference to give an update on two new arrests made regarding the Brooklyn Homes fatal shooting months ago. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

In an interview with The Banner, Bates was more sheepish about his role — he joked he would need to talk to his campaign staff about the email’s tone. He credited the hard work of the prosecutors in his office, whom he called “family,” along with police and the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

“I think it’s a we, not a me,” Bates said.

Still, Bates does claim a role. Understaffed for years, the state’s attorney’s office was “demoralized” and “just holding on barely” when Bates took office in January, he said.

“It’s sort of like, in the NFL, you might have a team that you feel is kind of underachieving because of the coach,” Bates said. “And then you have a new coach, a new team, and then, ‘Boom.’ All of the sudden, they’re in the playoffs.”

He credits his administration’s direction and pay increases in the homicide unit for better success in the courtrooms. The office handled more homicide cases than a year ago, according to data from the office, recording more convictions and guilty pleas. What’s more, Bates believes word of his administration’s tough approach to illegal firearms prosecutions — he lobbied lawmakers for stiffer penalties in Annapolis last year — is spreading through Baltimore’s streets.

Barron has a similar view, of his office and of Bates’ — both men, in separate and joint interviews, have spoken highly of the other. And, while both acknowledge the role social services play and that mass arrests won’t reduce crime, they are unified in their opinion that “violent offenders” have to be held accountable.

“Typically, U.S. attorney’s offices do not see themselves playing a large role in preventing violent crime,” Barron said. “I’ve explicitly made that a priority.”

Known for its high-profile and sometimes complex prosecutions, especially in recent years, the U.S. Attorney’s Office has placed significant emphasis on routine cases involving felons in possession of a firearm.

U.S. Attorney for Maryland Erek Barron talks about violent crime during a press conference at the State House in Annapolis on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023.
U.S. Attorney for Maryland Erek Barron talks about violent crime during a press conference at the State House in Annapolis. (Pamela Wood)

Those cases are typically handled by the state’s attorney but can be tried federally. Federal prosecutions are typically more successful, partly because feds pick winnable cases, and sentences are harsher. This year, the U.S. attorney’s Maryland office is on pace to file more felon-in-possession cases than any year since 2006, according to figures Barron provided. Barron, a former city prosecutor, said his office is adopting cases where the person has a history of violence or the potential to commit it.

“To prosecute that individual is to mitigate some number, and we’ll never know how many, but to mitigate some number of shootings or homicides,” Barron said. “I’m focusing more on preventative law enforcement, preventative prosecution, to drive those numbers down and make communities safer.”

Loved ones hold a vigil in honor of Kylis Fagbemi, 20, on July 11, 2023. Fagbemi was shot and killed at a Brooklyn Homes block party in early July. (Dylan Thiessen/The Baltimore Banner)

Scott credits City Hall stability as election looms

The Scott administration points to a combination of urgency and stability that hasn’t been seen in recent memory, referencing a five-year period when Baltimore saw five police commissioners and three mayors.

None of the other three mayors who held office after 2015 — Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Catherine Pugh and Jack Young — moved the stubborn homicide total below 300.

Though Scott himself has provided political stability to City Hall, the team that’s helped him implement this strategy has seen turnover. The police commissioner and director of MONSE left within a month of each other last spring, while the deputy mayor for public safety left in 2022.

It’s possible Scott himself will be replaced in 2025. The first-term mayor appears headed for a battle in the Democratic primary against former Mayor Sheila Dixon. Early polls show Dixon, who resigned in 2010 after a wide-ranging corruption probe ended with an embezzlement conviction, with the advantage.

Sheila Dixon listens from the first row of the crowd.
Former Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon listens during a town hall about public safety at the Edward A. Myerberg Center. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

Scott is stalwart in his belief that his approach and leadership are reducing violence. To change mayors could mean losing lives.

“It would be a very, very dangerous thing for some of the residents of Baltimore to be allowed to fall into a Jedi mind trick, that now all this work that we’ve been doing, all of a sudden like, ‘Oh, the mayor has nothing to do with it,’” Scott said.

University of Maryland professor Joseph Richardson, who has been researching anti-violence strategies in Baltimore and Washington, lauded Baltimore’s investment in violence intervention work, crediting it as a possible driver of this year’s drop in shootings. He said the city’s “stick-to-it-iveness” with the approach seems to be paying dividends.

“It’s not about short-term solutions, which many politicians are often looking for,” Richardson said.

Birds fly from the yard of a home in the Brooklyn Homes, Monday, July 3, 2023. (Jessica Gallagher/The Baltimore Banner)

Will progress continue?

Violence exploded in 2015 after Gray’s death from injuries sustained while in police custody, and it remained high through the pandemic, when homicides rose sharpy nationally.

Although it’s not “iron law” that cities follow national trends, some factors could explain why crime went up, according to Ames Grawert, senior counsel with the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonprofit working in part to create a “rational” justice system.

Grawert cited a proliferation of guns, coronavirus-forced interruptions to public services and high-profile police killings among the factors.

Although mayors, prosecutors and police officers take credit for decreases, some may simply be ascribed to American society resembling more and more of its pre-pandemic self.

Kelly, the community organizer from West Baltimore, said he’s observed more folks going back to work as opposed to being on the streets. That’s partly, he said, because nonprofits and community organizations are starting to fill the gaps in the social safety net the coronavirus exacerbated. But that network is disparate, and sustainability will be key.

A member of Baltimore Safe Streets carries a new flower bed to a home in Brooklyn during the Healing Day event on Saturday
A member of Baltimore Safe Streets carries a new flower bed to a home in Brooklyn during the Healing Day event. (J.M. Giordano/for the Baltimore Banner)

“We all know we have to sustain it and it’s going to take constant reassessment of what worked and what didn’t work,” Kelly said.

Experts, politicians and police have similarly expressed restrained optimism about the future while acknowledging the challenges. The police department is still understaffed and fighting to regain community trust it lost through years of unconstitutional policing of poor Black neighborhoods.

The money that has funded the mayor’s public safety office’s work the last three years will dry up soon, and while officials are looking to find future funding mechanisms, the outcome of next year’s mayoral election could do away with the public health approach completely.

“This might be a blip,” Richardson, the anti-violence researcher, said. “It’s one year. People get all excited and falling all over themselves to pat each other on the back, and it’s only a one-year reduction. We have to take time to see if this is a trend or if it’s an anomaly.”

Banner reporters Ben Conarck, Justin Fenton, Dylan Segelbaum, Emily Sullivan and Adam Willis contributed to this article.

Correction: This story has been updated to correct the population difference between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore.