Jessica Pachler called me two days after Christmas. There was another pop pop-pop pop outside her home, a sound instantly recognizable as gunfire to anyone living in parts of Annapolis.
“My kids were outside playing with their new Nerf guns,” she said. “And they came running in and said, ‘That was not a Nerf gun.’”
Police responded three times to Pachler’s street for gunshots in the days after the holiday. They were among 37 reports of shots fired in Maryland’s state capital in 2023, the highest number in at least eight years.
It’s of course low compared to larger cities such as Baltimore and Washington, where hundreds died by gunshot last year. You could easily dismiss these numbers as insignificant by comparison. Nine people were shot to death in Annapolis last year, after all, and another 22 wounded.
What’s a little noise?
These aren’t bumps in the night. It isn’t someone plinking cans for target practice or going after geese on the first day of hunting season. This is people shooting at each other, and the odds are someone else is going to die.
“I often say that, if you’re not living with it in your front yard, it’s really hard to understand,” Pachler said. “It’s really hard to get it, right?”
Over the last year, Pachler and I have been talking and exchanging messages about gun violence in Eastport, the neighborhood where she’s lived for 25 years. It’s not the tony part, where waterfront homes sell for millions.
She, her husband, Mike, and their four kids live near the intersection of Madison and President streets, where six people have been shot to death in the last 12 years. In a very violent year for Annapolis, the sound of gunfire accelerated.
“It was very easy for me when most of the gunshots were happening just around the corner,” Pachler said. “They were generally shooting in directions that weren’t near my house, right? I wasn’t as personally concerned. I was more community concerned.”
At 3:09 p.m. Dec. 26, Pachler’s door security camera recorded the sound of rapid-fire shots, startling her sons as they played on the front steps and launching them into a run for the door.
Six hours and 32 minutes later, the camera catches more gunfire. This time, Jessica and Mike are sitting around a glowing firepit when four more shots break the quiet.
“Fuck,” she said, bolting from her chair.
“It’s fireworks,” he said hopefully, still seated. “It’s fireworks.”
It wasn’t fireworks.
The next morning, at 10:37, the Pachler front yard is empty. In the door-camera feed, chairs are still arranged around the now-cold firepit. A few cars pass slowly on the street. It’s so quiet you can hear tires hiss on wet pavement.
Then, seven seconds of gunfire. It’s a long, violent phrase of nitrocellulose and nitroglycerin exploding from brass casings in rapid, percussive succession — “kidipapapap, poppoppop, skiiidyapop, pap, poppoppop, pppopppop pop pop pop skiddipappp. Pap. Pap. Pap.”
Annapolis police are listening, too. At least for the rest of this year.
In 2020, Baltimore Gas and Electric and the city launched a pilot project for ShotPoint, a gunfire-detection system. Sensors sit atop the power company’s networked streetlights near the Eastport Terrace and Harbour House public housing apartments, across the street from Pachler’s home.
A year ago, developer Databuoy Corp. released an initial assessment of the project. It found that ShotPoint, linked with video surveillance cameras to match images and audio files, sometimes produced an image of a shooter. It mistakenly identified gunshots as fireworks twice — in both cases the shots were fired from vehicles moving in a way that blocked the sound.
It improved police response times.
“We usually respond about 90 seconds after ShotPoint lets us know whether or not it was a gunshot or fireworks,” said Shepard Bennett, a city police spokesperson.
The pilot program ends this year. City officials will have to decide whether to invest in an expanded system or shut it down.
“It has helped us,” Bennett said.
On the morning of Dec. 27, it wasn’t ShotPoint that mattered. An officer parked in the neighborhood heard the morning barrage captured by Pachler’s camera. A teenager was arrested after three people in black masks ran from Madison Street.
It showed that getting to the sound of shots fast is good, but it doesn’t solve the problem if two people escape before more help arrives. You can run pretty far in 90 seconds.
The Pachlers aren’t the only Annapolis family dealing with the stress caused by gunfire. Apartments by the pool at Eastport Terrace have a long history of bullet damage.
The city’s gun violence dashboard, with its tabulation of homicides, shootings and shots fired, shows the places where gunfire is most often reported. The map glows red around Madison and Presidents streets, the Clay Street neighborhood across Spa Creek and the Robinwood neighborhood off Forest Drive.
Sandra O’Neill, director of the Bureau of Behavioral Health for the Anne Arundel County Department of Health, said ongoing gunfire causes secondary trauma. It can show up as feeling anxious all the time, having increased thoughts of suicide, engaging in substance abuse or being sullen and withdrawn — something Annapolis schools are reporting among students.
Different people will feel it differently, and many may not realize what’s causing it. A lot depends on individual resources — friends, family, personal health and access to counseling — that help with recovery.
“It can make people angry and feel that, if no one is going to protect me, I’m going to have to protect myself,” O’Neill said.
That can lead to more gunfire.
Pachler reached out to me frequently about gun violence in 2023, including the day after Amari Tydings died. The 26-year-old mother was shot to death at 2:09 p.m. June 3 while passing through that deadly intersection in Eastport. Police don’t believe she was the target.
Something changed for Pachler on Sept. 24, when a longtime city employee was shot while returning to her home on Madison Street at 9:26 p.m. Pachler loves her community, moderates a popular neighborhood Facebook page and is involved in multiple aspects of civic life.
Now, fear started to creep into our conversations.
“That was the time when there were a lot of shots fired and my son … had just gone to walk the dog,” she said. “I wasn’t sure where he had gone, and there was a massive barrage of gunshots.”
At 7:30 p.m. Nov. 2, more shots were heard in an exchange around the corner: kpow, kpow, kpow — pop pop pop. Police made no arrests and found no damage.
Five days later, at 1:09 a.m., officers were back after still more gunfire — pakow, pakow, pakow, pakow. But they couldn’t find evidence of what happened. Someone had fired at three other people, security images showed. No one reported being injured, and no one has been arrested.
After sunrise that morning, Pachler walked outside to find bullet holes in the side of her house. The family sponsors a Naval Academy midshipman, and his car, parked on the street, was punctured in several places. Called back to the street, police found slugs inside.
If you think Pachler is angry, and frightened, you’re right.
She’s angry about the legal feud between the city and the Annapolis housing authority over living conditions in the apartments across the street. She’s angry that police and the authority don’t work more closely on security.
She’s frustrated with the lack of a working video camera at the intersection where Tydings and five others have died.
And Pachler is worried things are going to get worse, as more shots ring out in her neighborhood.
“Why,” she asked, “can’t my kids play outside and be safe?”