Cassidy Jensen | The Baltimore Sun | January 5, 2024 | Original Source
The number of homicides and non-fatal shootings in Baltimore County last year fell more than 14% from 2022, mirroring downward trends nationwide.
Twenty-nine homicides were recorded in 2023 in the county, compared to 34 in 2022, while non-fatal shootings declined from 76 to 65.
The decrease coincides with fewer killings in Baltimore City, where 263 homicides put the city below the grim 300 threshold for the first time since 2015.
Daniel Webster, who studies gun violence as a distinguished research scholar at the Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Gun Violence Solutions, said U.S. cities are expected to see drops between 10% and 12% for last year.
Homicides this year in Baltimore County also were 47% lower than in 2021, when there were 55 homicides. That year set a record for the highest number of murders recorded in the county in decades, according to FBI data going back to 1985.
In a news release Thursday touting the decrease in shootings, Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. thanked Baltimore County Police Chief Robert McCullough, who took the helm of the department in April.
“We recognize that any loss of life is one too many and our prayers remain with any family who has lost a loved one,” Olszewski said in the release. “Moving forward we will continue to innovate our crime fighting strategies, focus on emerging trends, and do whatever is necessary to ensure Baltimore County remains a safe place to live, work and raise a family.”
Some of the lives lost in the county last year belonged to teenagers. In January, 15-year-old Lamar Leslie-Allen was shot and killed in Milford Mill, and in February the fatal shooting of Tre’shaun Harmon, 17, helped drive efforts to install more security cameras and add police patrols in downtown Towson.
Behind a restaurant near the intersection of Belair Road and Rossville Boulevard in Overlea, a small evergreen tree, a stone and wooden cross mark the spot where 17-year-old Elias Cieslak was shot and killed in April. According to court documents, three people, including teenagers, attempted to rob the Parkville High School student in a cannabis deal that turned deadly. Their trials are set for summer 2024.
“It’s a different feeling when you lose your kid. A lot of people are going through that right now,” said Elias’ father Juan Cieslak, who said he is haunted by seeing his son take his last breaths.
Cieslak’s sister planted the tree in Elias’ honor in the spring. “I told her to get something that doesn’t die,” he said. Cieslak is also in the process of starting a foundation to help the families of gun violence victims pay for funeral expenses.
Since his son’s death, Cieslak has turned to the parents of other young shooting victims for mutual comfort, including Krystal Gonzalez, whose 18-year-old daughter Aaliyah died in the Brooklyn Homes shooting in South Baltimore in July.
Ryan Coleman, president of the Randallstown NAACP, attributed the county’s downturn in shootings in part to good community and police relationships, including a solid relationship between the department and his membership.
“That has paid dividends,” he said. “It’s been different shootings and different things where we’ve tried to point the police in the right direction.”
While killings and assaults fell, other crimes increased, most notably car thefts, which rose 182% from 1,576 in 2022 to 4,448 last year, according to police data. Burglaries and robberies also both increased slightly last year. Robberies include carjackings, which rose from 103 to 121 in 2023.
“As it relates to crime in general and car thefts, clearly it is not a victimless crime,” said Baltimore County Councilman Julian Jones, a Woodstock Democrat. “I think everyone wants to see us get a handle on it and get these numbers down.”
Thefts of Hyundai and Kia vehicles with a manufacturing flaw that makes them easier to start have contributed to an uptick in stolen cars across the country. County police have given out free steering wheel locks to residents in response. In Maryland, the greater number of car thefts have helped fuel a debate over state juvenile justice reforms, even as youth crime overall has gone down.
Councilman Izzy Patoka, a Pikesville Democrat recently elected chair of the county council for 2024, said the top issue his constituents complain about is speeding.
He said the uptick in car thefts has become noticeable at monthly police community relations council meetings he’s attended in Pikesville and Woodlawn, although, he added, about half of the thefts reported continue to stem from drivers leaving their keys in the car.
“We can always do better,” said Patoka, adding that the police department is understaffed.
Officer vacancies have remained a stubborn issue, despite enticements like a $10,000 bonus for new officers introduced in 2022.