BALTIMORE — Jalil George was checking on his Baltimore investment property earlier this month when a gunman mistook him for someone else and opened fire. The young real estate investor and recent college graduate spent his final moments outside a partially renovated brick rowhouse that symbolized his positive vision for the future of Baltimore, loved ones said.
Police called the afternoon homicide an apparent case of mistaken identity. They believe George was targeted because of his car; a similar model was involved in an earlier shooting nearby.
In the 24 hours surrounding his death, three other men were fatally shot within a roughly 1-mile (1.6-kilometer) radius in the Park Heights area of northwest Baltimore.
The recent spate of killings has reignited longstanding frustration and familiar debate amid another year of rampant gun violence. The city’s homicide count surpassed 300 for the eighth year running as violence remains stubbornly high despite repeated promises from city officials and new anti-violence initiatives.
“Baltimore City done become a graveyard — memorials on every corner,” said longtime Park Heights resident Karl McDonald, who joined a recent anti-violence march in the neighborhood.
Though they expressed a collective commitment to saving lives, community members presented a spectrum of ideas about how to address the intractable problem. Some say citizens should help spark cultural change, while others criticize elected leaders for repeatedly failing to quell the violence, which remains heavily concentrated in neighborhoods most affected by poverty, racism and prolonged disinvestment.
“The city has allowed this to happen for so long, but it’s the city’s responsibility to keep our citizens safe,” said Imhotep Fatiu, founder of the Pan-Afrikan Liberation Movement, which focuses on strengthening Baltimore’s Black community. “We need to put pressure on the government.”
A longtime fixture in Park Heights, Fatiu said little has changed since he got shot there in 1989. He questioned how city officials would react if the violence was occurring in whiter, more affluent communities.
“Look at this neighborhood,” he said, gesturing toward swaths of vacant row houses and overgrown lots. “It wouldn’t take much investment to make a difference.”
Others called on their peers to assume a more active role in anti-violence efforts.
“We want to spectate, but now is the time for participation,” local activist Elijah Miles told dozens of mourners at a rally honoring George. “If you really care about what’s happening in these streets, get out and work in them. Because our people are dying, each and every day.”
At another recent demonstration in Park Heights, about 50 people marched through the streets chanting into a megaphone: “One life is one too many.”
A sprawling community that encompasses about a dozen neighborhoods in northwest Baltimore, Park Heights once boasted a thriving economy and picturesque tree-lined streets surrounding the historic Pimlico Race Course. But white flight and other factors led to increased rates of poverty, violence and economic decline.
Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott, who grew up in the community, has spoken about experiencing the Preakness, when tourists pour into the struggling corner of Baltimore for one of the biggest annual horse racing events.
About six months after Scott took office in December 2020, he released a five-year comprehensive plan to reduce Baltimore gun violence by 15% annually.
Baltimore has recorded 322 homicides in 2022, roughly the same number as last year. The city experienced its highest count on record in 1993 with 353 killings. Detectives solved less than 40% of homicide cases in 2022, according to agency data.
“I’ll be the first person to admit, we are not where we need to be,” Scott said at a Wednesday news conference addressing the numbers. “It is clear that we are moving forward, but this work has just begun.”
Baltimore gun violence has remained elevated since the 2015 deadly arrest of Freddie Gray sparked unrest and police corruption scandals fractured public trust. The department is operating under a federal consent decree imposed in 2017 after investigators found a pattern of unconstitutional policing practices. Agency leaders are also grappling with a deepening manpower shortage and recruiting woes.
With violence relatively steady in recent years, Baltimore bucks national trends. Many cities saw a significant increase in 2020 that was partly pandemic related, followed by a gradual decline over the past several months, criminologists said.
With 2022 coming to a close, Scott and Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison reiterated their commitment to addressing the root causes of violence through community-based programs that provide services like conflict mediation, life-coaching and employment opportunities. The city allocated millions in COVID-relief funds to support grassroots organizations.
“It takes time to change culture,” Harrison said. “We know policing alone doesn’t deter violence.”
Officials highlighted a 38% reduction in shootings and homicides in the police department’s Western District, where a pilot program of their Group Violence Reduction Strategy was launched in early 2022. The strategy relies on a collaboration between Baltimore police and community groups to target potential shooters and victims, offering them services and support. Similar initiatives have seen success in other cities.
The initial results look promising, and Baltimore officials hope to expand the strategy citywide by mid-2024.
Officials also announced a reorganization of their Safe Streets program. The changes — which came after three Safe Streets workers were killed in roughly 18 months — seek to establish more oversight and standardized training for “violence interrupters,” conflict mediators with credibility in their communities.
“Without Safe Streets, things would be even worse,” said Margaret Smith, whose grandson was killed in an August shooting in Park Heights when someone opened fire on a group of men playing dominoes, leaving six injured and one dead.
At the rally for George last week, community leaders demanded collective action to quell the violence, saying everyone — from citizens to elected officials to law enforcement — must do their part to prevent more senseless deaths.
“Jalil was a son, a brother, a grandson, a nephew. He was a student, friend and leader,” said Deanna Bailey, a Morgan State University engineering professor. “I just hope this doesn’t break the spirit of other young Black people who want to do positive things in their communities. Some of us have to stay here and fight.”