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2016 Topical Reporting, Medium Newsroom finalist

Violence in Baltimore

About the Project

The world watched while Baltimore exploded into riots and chaos after the death of Freddie Gray in April 2015, but it was only after order was officially restored that the real violence began. Since then, the killings have come at a terrifying pace – more than one a day from May through December last year – turning neighborhoods into war zones where toddlers and grandmothers alike could be caught in the crossfire.

The Baltimore Sun has long been a diligent chronicler of Baltimore’s violence, but it was clear to us that something was different last year. Even amid an increase in homicides among big cities nationwide, Baltimore’s surge in killings stood out, reaching the highest number per capita in the city’s history. The Sun’s staff made it their mission to seek explanations for the violence, to hold the police and public officials accountable for their efforts to address it, to use data, multimedia and digital storytelling tools to provide a more complete picture of the issues surrounding violence, and to put a human face on trauma that remains too easy for many to ignore.

Long before FBI Director James Comey started theorizing about a “Ferguson effect” causing police to act less aggressively, The Sun was detailing changes in police behavior that followed Baltimore’s riots and the indictment of the six officers involved in Freddie Gray’s arrest. The Sun reported on police saying they were frightened to do their jobs after the indictments, and reporters Doug Donovan and Colin Campbell quantified the phenomenon: Through an analysis of police data, they reported declines in the arrest rate of 90 percent or more in some neighborhoods and an overall decline of 43 percent in May. (See Entry URL 5 for this and other noteworthy stories from our coverage).

But The Sun’s reporters weren’t content with those explanations and uncovered failings in the city’s key crime-fighting strategies. In May, Donovan, Justin Fenton and Luke Broadwater revealed that Operation Ceasefire, a program the mayor had promised would “bring dramatic results,” had been adrift since its director resigned amid complaints about funding, staffing and a lack of cooperation from the police department.

Public officials in Baltimore, including the two men who have headed the police department during this stretch of violence, often sought to calm public fears by suggesting that the homicides are confined almost exclusively to those involved in the drug trade – bad guys killing bad guys. Sun reporters, led by Fenton, challenged that idea through the heart-wrenching task of identifying and profiling every one of the 45 people killed in the city in July, the deadliest month in Baltimore history. (see Entry URL 1). What they found was just how broadly the community was affected by a spate of murders: A young man who was expecting his first child, a baby girl he would never meet, with his high school sweetheart. A 5-month-old boy and a 53-year-old grandmother. A mechanic and a deliveryman. All left behind trails of grief and loss that will affect the city for generations to come.

In July, The Sun also launched a new version of its Baltimore homicides map/database, which is updated by our staff to chronicle every homicide in the city. (See Entry URL 3). The new version is fully responsive and gives users more options for filtering and displaying trends in the data and making historical comparisons going back to 2007. This was just one of many examples over the past year in which The Sun’s interactive design team sought to provide further context to the historic violence through data analysis, interactive graphics and maps. See Entry URL 4 for a collection of noteworthy pieces the team produced, including an interactive map in which users could enter their address to find information on shootings that have occurred within a one-mile radius. And an end-of-year explainer graphics package showed the record 344 homicide count broken down in stark statistics (e.g., the youngest victim was 9 days old, while the oldest was 71).

Reporters also sought to show the many ways that citizens were coping with the growing violence and their frustration in being unable to stop it. In August, reporter Kevin Rector joined 40 men and boys who walked 29 miles from Baltimore to Washington overnight in August. The local 300 Men March organization was shining a national spotlight on the group’s anti-violence work at a time when the killing in Baltimore was spiraling out of control. Rector walked all night with the group, tweeting their stories, photos and whereabouts and updating his article on BaltimoreSun.com. By the time the sun came up, his work was gaining notice by national media including CNN, NPR and others. (see Entry URL 5).

The capstone of the 2015 coverage was Fenton’s chronicle of two homicide detectives’ efforts to solve just one of the killings. (see Entry URL 4). With exclusive access to them as they interviewed witnesses and searched for clues, he provided insight into the complex web of social dysfunction and distrust – a 10-year-old boy admonishing a man to not talk to police, a witness claiming the slain man wouldn’t want him to say a word – that have conspired to make Baltimore one of the most violent cities in the nation.

Through early June this year, Baltimore’s per-capita homicide rate is nearly keeping pace with last year’s record, while other crimes are up as well: Compared to last year, shootings, street robberies and carjackings have all increased. The Sun’s staff has continued to report on all aspects of the violence, while covering the first trials of the officers charged in the Freddie Gray case.