Baltimore teenagers are being shot at an alarming rate this year

Published on: October 17, 2022 6:00 AM EDT|Updated on: October 17, 2022 4:57 PM EDT

Black boy looks at phone, vacant houses and gun in background

Tiya Otugo had just finished playing basketball in Montebello Park on a sweltering night in July. He was hanging out with his brother and a group of friends the next block over, on East 29th Street, when gunshots rang out.

As he and other teenagers fled, Otugo was struck by a single bullet and fell to the ground. By the time his mother, Erica Otugo, arrived, he was being treated inside an idling ambulance. Tiya was transported to Johns Hopkins hospital, but his heart stopped before he arrived.

Tiya Otugo’s killing fits a tragic and recurring pattern in Baltimore City of teenagers being shot at an alarming rate. More children under the age of 18 have been shot in the city so far in 2022 than in any year since 2014, an analysis by The Baltimore Banner has found.

This historically violent year for Baltimore’s children has been fueled by a winter and spring that each had the most young people struck by gunfire since 2014, the earliest year in the Baltimore Police Department’s public release of violent crimes data without significant data deficiencies. Most of the 71 shooting victims are 16- and 17-year-old males. And nearly all of the victims are Black.

Nearly one out of three children shot in Baltimore this year was shot in the Eastern District, a policing jurisdiction with a relatively small population but one that has long suffered from high rates of Gun violence. Seven other juvenile shootings occurred just outside the district’s borders.

The Eastern encompasses neighborhoods like Gay Street, Middle East and Milton-Montford. Its district commander, Maj. Guy Thacker, has bought into the BPD’s shifting policing philosophy: de-emphasizing stops and arrests while working to connect residents with city services.

“We know violent crime in our city is heavily concentrated within areas of high poverty, housing abandonment and clusters of drug activity from both users and to those dealing,” a police department spokesperson said in a statement. “The Eastern District has historically experienced these issues, along with some recent volatility involving different groups that have led to retaliatory violence.”

Otugo’s mother said she couldn’t think of any reason why someone would want to hurt her son.

“He wasn’t a troubled child,” Erica Otugo said. “He was trying to focus on getting his stuff together: doing better in school, trying to get another vehicle because he just got his driver’s license in March. ... He didn’t have no problem with nobody.”

On that night and ever since, answers have been hard to come by for Erica Otugo. She’s heard from detectives about three times since the shooting, but she has no idea how or why her son was killed. No one there with Tiya that night saw where the gunshots came from, but they sensed they were being shot at from far away, Erica Otugo said, relaying the accounts of those who were with Tiya when he was shot.

Erica Otugo said she doesn’t blame the detectives working her son’s homicide case for a lack of progress so far.

“It’s not that they don’t want to find out — it’s just that there’s so much killing in Baltimore, so I’m not blaming them at all,” she said. “But what police work doesn’t do, God sees everything. People have to answer to God one way or another.”

Nationally, gun violence has recently eclipsed automobile accidents as the leading cause of death for children, but that has long been the case in Baltimore. A city health department report released in 2021 found that homicides were the leading cause of death for children 2016 to 2020, the latest year reviewed.

There are signs of trauma still lingering from recent shootings of children in Baltimore. A red-and-white Nike sneaker stuffed with purple and pink flowers still sits on the front porch where 15-year-old NyKayla Strawder was shot and killed by a 9-year-old boy in August. Police, who described the shooting as “accidental,” said the boy had taken a gun from a relative. Strawder’s family has disputed that narrative.

The shooting death of Jeremiah Brodgen, a 17-year-old Mergenthaler Vocational Technical High School student who was killed on a Friday afternoon as classes let out at the end of the first week of school, continues to weigh on his friends and teammates, as captured in a recent feature by the Baltimore Beat.

Both of those killings drew attention from city leaders, who demanded an end to the violence, but there are scores of other children who were shot in the city this year, many of them non-fatally. Those shootings often remain unsolved and unexplained to the public and the victims’ families.

Deputy Mayor Anthony Barksdale, a former acting Baltimore police commissioner who has since joined the mayor’s administration as a public safety czar, said he and others working in city government have noticed the uptick in youth shootings and are working on ways to stem it. Barksdale said the surge has been exacerbated by an unconstrained flow of illegal “ghost guns,” as well as spying and spats on social media.

“It’s tough,” Barksdale said. “And it’s hard watching so many kids be gunned down, or gun another kid down, over something that doesn’t even matter.”

The prevalence of social media is a “huge” factor in the uptick in shootings, Barksdale said, but not necessarily by producing beefs that then led to shootouts. Instead, Barksdale said, young people who post or are tagged in a post are more likely to inadvertently reveal their location to others who want to shoot them.

Rashad Singletary, associate director of gun violence prevention for the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement, said it’s important to remember that many of the young people who get caught up in violence in Baltimore grew up in neighborhoods with boarded-up homes, trash everywhere and rampant drug addiction. Some grew up as squatters in vacant buildings.

That destitution leads to acting out violently because young people don’t think there is another way to be heard or get help, Singletary said. He compared it to “screaming in a crowd, and no one hearing you.”

“A lot of times, young people are acting out not just for attention, but trying to get the help that they need,” Singletary said. “It’s not because they have a deviant personality. Many of them are just so traumatized that they don’t know how to deal with their conflict.”

Shots streamed live and incendiary taunts online

Every day, gun violence in Baltimore is depicted or described on social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok. The former platform has popular accounts that post police dispatches on shootings, and the comment sections often become virtual gathering places for people to share information, and sometimes pray for and remember loved ones lost to gunfire.

In other social media corners, inflammatory messages, outright or symbolic, are shot back and forth between warring rivals.

In just the last few weeks, a Baltimore shooting was streamed live on social media, and another social media live stream featured a young person urinating on the grave of someone their friends had gunned down, said Craig Jernigan, a youth violence interrupter who has long worked with young people involved in gun violence in Baltimore.

Jernigan, a regional director for Youth Advocate Programs, a group devoted to countering youth violence, agreed that social media posts have been an incendiary factor, but that comes on top of a web of socioeconomic ills and the persistent trauma that harms so many young people in the city, leading them to resort to gun violence.

There’s also the seismic shift that’s resulted from the death in April 2015 of Freddie Gray from injuries sustained while in police custody. After Gray’s death, Jernigan witnessed the uprising that followed.

The lingering effect of that movement, he said, was a sense among young people that their voices are not being heard, whether it’s by family, friends, school systems, or elsewhere.

“What we’re seeing now is a lot of reactions from individuals who don’t know what the heck they’re doing,” Jernigan said. “They’re engaging in behaviors and activities and not understanding the full consequences of what is happening to them.”

Social media and pop culture create layers on top of those frustrations to the point that young people are being “inundated with outside stimuli that’s creating craziness,” Jernigan said.

“And more folks that are saying, ‘Hey, Baltimore is off the chain, they carry all those guns,’ ” he said. “And you have young folks buying into that myth.”

Fred Fogg, who works with Jernigan for Youth Advocate Programs, said the ubiquity of social media has also fanned flames by providing audiences of thousands of people to fights that are being recorded and posted online.

“Young people no longer feel like they can just take the ‘L’ [loss] and walk away,” Fogg said. “There’s no way to save face in that social media place, because it’s all being recorded.”

The Banner was unable to properly examine the impact of Gray’s death on juvenile shootings because the data before 2014 is unreliable. In response to questions from The Banner, Baltimore Police admitted the publicly available data was unreliable in the years before 2014. It lists only six juvenile shootings in 2012 and 2013 — a likely undercount — and lists none in 2011. The annual count of Baltimore homicides has increased about 50% since 2014.

Gun violence as a public health issue

Following numerous police scandals and an ensuing federal consent decree for the Baltimore Police Department, city leaders have increasingly flowed resources to alternative ways of dealing with rising gun violence.

Barksdale, the public safety czar known as someone who has often advocated for aggressively policing repeat violent offenders, recently endorsed the alternative approaches as an important complement to traditional policing.

“I used to believe in arrest, arrest, arrest, but policing alone won’t solve the problem,” Barksdale said to a group of violence intervention workers at a panel hosted by the U.S. Department of Justice in September. “It won’t. Locking everybody up won’t solve the problem.”

Though the city retains a robust $560 million police budget, a patchwork of violence-intervention efforts has developed across the city, connecting youths and adults affected by gun violence to resources for mental health, housing and employment.

It’s no coincidence that gun violence in Baltimore is concentrated in areas that have received little city investment over the last decades. No one neighborhood stands out as an outlier in children being shot, but the shootings are more concentrated in majority Black neighborhoods that also have some of the lowest incomes in the city.

The vast majority of children shot in Baltimore are Black males. Since 2012, six white children have been shot in the city, compared to 457 Black children.

The same disproportionate racial impacts can be seen in the juvenile justice system. To that end, the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services has enlisted the Youth Advocate Programs to intervene with kids wrapped up in the system who are considered “high-risk” and facing possible placement in a detention center.

When YAP swoops in, outreach workers offer services that extend to the entire family. One of the first questions the group asks young people is “What do you need?”

The answers they receive range from needing help paying court restitution to help finding employment and paying bills. Some young people in Baltimore lack school supplies, while others lack basic documentation such as birth certificates to gain employment, Jernigan and Fogg, of YAP, said.

“You’d be surprised at some of the basic needs that individuals have and the insights they have into their situation,” Fogg said. “So we help them build out a plan to have their needs met, because oftentimes they feel the responsibility of taking care of their family, and they’re taking charge to get those needs met. They use whatever means they have available to them.”

‘Persistent traumatic stress disorder’

Key to YAP’s efforts and the work of other violence intervention groups in Baltimore is using brain science to better understand what goes through the minds of young shooters and what leads them to commit violence.

Fogg said that many children they engage with suffer from PTSD, but he refers to it as “persistent traumatic stress disorder,” as opposed to post-traumatic. The group works with juveniles as young as 10 years-old.

“It’s persistent day to day,” he said. “And they’re not equipped to manage that.”

That persistent trauma leads to young people who are stuck in survival mode, constantly shifting between fight-or-flight instincts, youth violence interruption workers said.

“It’s all about survival,” said J.T. Timpson, a former Safe Streets Baltimore liaison who now works with Roca, a violence intervention group. “These kids aren’t out here because they want to be reckless. They want to make money, maybe for wrong or right reasons.”

Young Black men and boys in Baltimore often have operated in an environment of fear for a significant portion of their formative years, Timpson said. That fear is often directed toward them by the people in society who are supposed to be there to help, he added, a byproduct of media culture framing young Black men as inherently violent.

“Most people are scared to intervene when you have that lash-out or that bad day,” he said. “What happens in school? You get kicked out. What happens in most programs? You get kicked out. You get kicked out of the services you need.”

Violence interruption groups such as Roca model their work around the understanding that the human brain is not fully developed until around the age of 24. Much of the work is about teaching cognitive behavioral techniques to better manage the stress and agitation of daily occurrences.

Sometimes that is as simple as counting to eight.

“I often tell kids, ‘I need that eight,’ ” Timpson said. “They know what I mean. I need that pause.”

One of Timpson’s responsibilities with Roca was to help develop its after-shooting protocol, in which the agency identifies gunshot victims between the ages of 16 and 24 and works to connect them with city services.

Betsy Fox Tolentino, a former DJS official who now works with Roca, said that most of the people shot under the age of 18 in Baltimore are not under the agency’s supervision when it happens.

“Most of the young people who are shot are not on probation; they’re not wrapped up in the system,” she said.

For those who are, DJS has partnered with Roca and law enforcement groups to respond to youth gunshot victims who are involved in the juvenile justice system in any capacity and attempt to disrupt potential retaliation, while also supporting the family of the person shot.

“We can at least provide a pathway,” Fox Tolentino said.

The ‘contagion phenomenon’

Gun violence and violence interruption experts could offer only educated guesses as to why juvenile shootings this year are concentrated in the Eastern District.

One such guess was a lack of violence interruption and other pilot programs by the city in the Eastern. Many of those programs have focused on West Baltimore.

Robert Stokes, a Baltimore City Council member who represents parts of the Eastern District, said he believes a lack of those programs as well as a lack of patrol resources contributes to the persistent violence there.

After violence erupts, Stokes said, police will often establish a fleeting presence in the neighborhood, which he said amounted to “checkers.”

“They’ll put five or six police there,” he said. “They’re there for about a week.”

Daniel Webster, co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions, who once led a homicide review commission for the city of Baltimore, agreed with other experts that the emergence of easily accessible ghost guns and omnipresence of social media have made youth shootings more prevalent. He also attributed some of the increase to changes in policing that have de-emphasized stops and searches.

As for the geographic concentration in the Eastern District, Webster described a “contagion phenomenon.”

“If you’re living in an area where you see more people carrying guns, it’s very natural to think: ‘Well, if everybody else is carrying guns, this is not just a fashion statement,’ ” Webster said. “This is to feel safe, and you need to carry guns too.”

That prevalence of guns and the “contagiousness” of gun violence sets the stage for spontaneous and continued violence, Webster added. A shooting among youths in the Eastern could grow into a retaliatory back-and-forth.

“The combination of retaliation and more gun carrying, because everyone is on edge, it’s going to be geographically focused on where that stuff is going on,” Webster said.

Richie Hawkes, 39, was shot on the street in Baltimore at 16 years old. He now works as a personal trainer and motivational speaker. Hawkes said the reasons behind the spike in youth gunshot victims are multifaceted.

“The violence out here in the city is not just one thing you can pinpoint,” he said.

Hawkes echoed what some gun violence experts said about the impacts of trauma. The cultural influences of pop culture, rap music and peer pressure also factor in.

“You have this image out here in the streets that if you’re not dealing with any level of crime, you’re soft,” Hawkes said. “You’re not worthy of hanging out with the ‘it crowd.’ ”

And Hawkes agreed that retaliation drives much of the violence.

“Ninety percent of the shootings out in the streets are get-backs,” he said.

The idea behind the violence intervention program is to disrupt those cycles of violence. And the workers have relied heavily on basic cognitive tools to achieve that end.

“The brain science tells you that most of the young people are so traumatized they’re stuck in fight or flight,” Timpson said. “How do we disrupt that? That’s the real question.”

Review the code and methodology used for the Banner’s analysis of juvenile shooting victims on our GitHub page.