Amid Violence, Commercial Robberies Soar in Baltimore

While Baltimore’s three-year spike in violent crime draws most of the attention, business owners have suffered a similar increase in commercial robberies. Such crime has risen 88 percent in the last five years, from 560 commercial robberies in 2013 to more than 1,000 last year. Business owners are complaining of threats outside their stores: drug dealing, intimidation, stabbings and shootings.

While Baltimore’s three-year spike in violent crime draws most of the attention, business owners across the city have suffered a similar increase in commercial robberies, the Baltimore Sun reports. Such crime has risen 88 percent in the last five years, from 560 commercial robberies in 2013 to more than 1,000 last year. Business owners are complaining of threats outside their stores: drug dealing, intimidation, stabbings and shootings. They’re fighting back with security measures — guards, surveillance cameras, door buzzer systems — moving out of the city or, in some cases, shutting down.

“Our members are very concerned,” said Cailey Locklair Tolle of the Maryland Retailers Association. “Unfortunately, a lot of our members don’t relocate. It’s a massive endeavor. A lot of times they just go out of business.” Police have taken notice, and say recent arrests should make a dent. Five men have been charged in at least six robberies across the city. “It’s a small group of people responsible for these,” police spokesman T.J. Smith said. Smith said police are increasing checks on stores and are monitoring CitiWatch cameras more closely. He described an apparent robbery attempt thwarted by CitiWatch personnel in January. Two men appeared to be casing a 7-Eleven store downtown. It had been robbed days earlier, and three times last year. The CitiWatch personnel directed officers to the store. They confronted the suspects at the front door. At least one officer and one suspect fired at each other, but no one was injured. The suspects escaped.


Big-City Murders Down Modestly in 2017

The homicide total in the nation’s 50 largest cities dropped about 1-2 percent last year, depending on whether the Las Vegas mass killings are included, reports USA Today. that follows two years of increases nationally reported by the FBI.

The collective homicide toll for the 50 largest U.S. cities dipped slightly in 2017, reports USA Today. The FBI’s compilation isn’t due until later this year, but a review of police crime data shows that killings decreased in large jurisdictions compared with 2016. The modest decline comes after FBI data showed back-to-back years in which homicides rose sharply in large cities. Homicides in cities with 250,000 or more residents rose by about 15.2 percent from 2014 to 2015, and 8.2 percent from 2015 to 2016. There were 5,738 homicides in the 50 biggest cities in 2017 compared with 5,863 homicides in 2016, a 2.3 percent drop. Las Vegas  reported 141 homicides for 2017 in its official tally but did not include the Oct. 1 mass shooting at an outdoor country music concert that left 58 dead. If those deaths were included, the national big city homicide toll fell by 1.1 percent.

Even with the sharp rise in homicides in the two years prior to 2017, the national murder toll continued to hover near historic lows. The national decrease in killings in 2017 was largely driven by double-digit percentage dips in some big cities, including Chicago (14.7 percent), New York City (13.4 percent) and Houston (11 percent). Baltimore is the big city with the highest per capita murder rate in the nation, with nearly 56 murders per 100,000 people. At 343 murders in 2017, the city tallied the highest per capita rate in its history. “In New York, they concentrated on the right neighborhoods, they’ve invested well in predictive analytics and technology,” said Peter Scharf, a criminologist at the LSU School of Public Health and Justice. “The other part of what we’re seeing nationally might be a story of haves and have-nots. While some departments have made the investments, other police departments are still in the backwater of policing.”


Divergent NYC, Baltimore Murder: A Tale of Two Cities

Why have Baltimoreand New York City gone in opposite directions as far as the murder rate is concerned? Seven years ago, Baltimore was improving and New York City homicide numbers were flat. The two cities have gone in different directions since then.

Baltimore and New York City, separated by just 200 miles along the Northeast corridor, tell two very different stories about murder, the Christian Science Monitor reports. Baltimore, population 615,000, had 343 murders last year. That’s a rate of 55.8 per 100,000 people, the highest the city has ever seen. New York, population 8.5 million, had 290 murders last year. That’s a rate of 3.3 per 100,000 people, and the lowest the city has seen. The cities’ “inverted symmetry” is visible in other ways. More than three years after New York City officers subdued Eric Garner in a chokehold, causing his death, the police department has reported fewer stops, fewer arrests, and fewer complaints. Almost three years after Baltimore officers took Freddie Gray on a “rough ride,” causing his death, the Baltimore Police Department also reports fewer stops and fewer arrests.

The Baltimore department is in turmoil. Two officers in the elite gun task force were found guilty this week of racketeering and robbery, forcing prosecutors to drop or re-open more than 125 cases. The mayor fired the police commissioner. And some community leaders are complaining their police force is not doing enough to protect their neighborhoods. In 2011, the stories were different. There were 196 murders in Baltimore, the first time the city had fallen below 200 homicides in more than 30 years. In New York that year, there were 515 murders. The city’s 20-year run of plummeting murder rates seemed to flatline. Police officers were stopping and frisking nearly 700,000 people – more than the entire population of Baltimore. Many Americans don’t feel safe now. Other cities, such as Chicago, Detroit, and St. Louis, have also experienced troubling spikes in murders. In a two-part series, the Monitor explores cities’ varying approaches to the violent crime problem.


Eleven Charged in Florida Black Market Fuel Sales

Across South Florida, crooks use “skimmers” to steal credit-card numbers at gas stations, then using the accounts to buy fuel that is transported in vehicles illegally laden with dangerous fuel.

With three tanker trucks delivering diesel in South Florida, South River Fuel seemed like a legitimate operation. Investigators say the Medley company, while registered with the state, had no licenses to sell or deliver fuel and the logos were just a front for an illegal operation to buy and sell diesel as part of South Florida’s thriving black market for fuel, The Miami Herald reports. Prosecutors on Tuesday announced criminal charges against the company’s owners, who are accused of purchasing the fuel from truck drivers who used stolen credit-card numbers to buy diesel from gas stations across South Florida.

Across South Florida, crooks use “skimmers” to steal credit-card numbers at gas stations, then using the accounts to buy fuel that is transported in vehicles illegally laden with dangerous fuel. It’s believed to be the most expansive case brought against illegal fuel sellers — and buyers — who have helped make underground diesel sales a lucrative underground trade. State prosecutors charged 11 people, most of them drivers. South River is believed to have sold fuel, at cheaper rates, to rental-car companies, tow-truck yards, truckers and even gas stations. Some knew the gas was hot, while others did not know South River was unlicensed. “We wanted to get the kings of these operations to be held accountable,” said Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said. The company’s owners, Jorge Guerra and Yadian Sosa, were charged along with nine others, most of them drivers of so-called “fuel bladder” vehicles covertly outfitted with dangerous gas containers that pose a huge risk of fire or explosion.


Denver Year’s Violent Start: 13 Homicides Reported

The killings are putting Denver on pace to have another year of rising homicide rates. The total of 56 in both 2017 and 2016 were 10-year highs.

Thirteen people have been killed so far in Denver this year, the most violent start to a year since 2010, and the killings are putting Denver on pace to have another year of rising homicide rates, the Denver Post reports. In 2017, there were 56 homicides in Denver, the same as 2016. Both were 10-year highs. In three of the homicide incidents so far this year, multiple people were killed, including the shooting death of two teenagers. “This past weekend is alarming to all of us,” said Donna Garnett, a community activist and editor of the Muse, a neighborhood newspaper. Police have not been able to pinpoint any patterns in the 2017 deaths, said Commander Barb Archer, who leads the Denver Police Department’s major-crimes unit.

In 2015, gang violence rocked Denver, accounting for 23 of the city’s 50 killings. In 2016, domestic violence drove up the homicide numbers after 10 of the 56 people killed were stabbed or shot by their intimate partners. One bright spot in the numbers has been the police department’s ability to make arrests in the cases. For 2017, the department has a 71 percent clearance rate. Arrests have been made in five of the nine incidents in 2018. Denver is far from reaching its all-time high in homicides. That number came in 1992, when 95 people were killed. People from neighborhoods that have experienced recent violence attended a march Tuesday afternoon, said Angelle Fouther of the Montbello Organizing Committee. “People want to take action,” she said. “We share the sentiment that No. 1, the gun violence is out of control. And No. 2, our youth are in the crossfire in more ways than one. It feels urgent. We don’t want this to be a trend in anyone’s neighborhood. We don’t want this to escalate.”


NYC Mayor, Prosecutor At Odds Over Turnstile Jumpers

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio opposes the new policy of Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance of declining to prosecute most who are arrested for fare evasion. The approach was pioneered by former Police Commissioner William Bratton.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance are at odds over prosecution of the city’s turnstile jumpers. De Blasio opposes Vance’s new policy of declining to prosecute most who are arrested for fare evasion, the New York Times reports. De Blasio, a champion of improving the lot of poor New Yorkers,  defends the police practice of using evasion of the $2.75 subway fare as a means for officers to check the names and warrants of those they stop, most of whom are black or Hispanic. He has been unpersuaded by critics who believe the approach — pioneered in the 1990s by William Bratton, de Blasio’s first police commissioner — is a form of biased and overly aggressive policing akin to stop-and-frisk.

The mayor does think most violators are motivated by poverty. “A lot of people who commit fare evasion and the police encounter have a lot of money on them,” de Blasio says. Robberies on subways in Manhattan are up to 19 so far this year, up from nine in the same period a year ago. Some police leaders say that the crime decreases over recent years have resulted from decades of attention to the turnstiles. The Times says the spat over how to deal with fare evaders cuts to the heart of criminal justice reform: In a city where crime has reached record lows, how much more can the justice system change? Joseph Lhota, chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, cited a recent arrest of a man from Virginia whom officers confronted over failing to pay his fare and discovered he was wanted for attempted murder in his home state. He called on DA Vance to continue prosecuting fare evaders.


NYC Blacks, Hispanics Hit Hardest by Misdemeanor Arrests: Study

In its seventh report, John Jay College’s Misdemeanor Justice Project found that, even though arrests for pot possession and other drug-related offenses are down, individuals of color are almost five times more likely to be arrested for drug charges than whites in New York City.

In New York City, marijuana and other drug-related arrests significantly decreased in 2016, but young African-American men and Hispanics are still arrested at much higher rates than their white counterparts, according to a report by the Misdemeanor Justice Project at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Examining data from the New York City Police Department from 1993 to 2016, including all misdemeanor offenses for 16 to 65 year olds, researchers found that blacks are almost five times more likely to be arrested for minor drug charges such as possession of marijuana than whites.

Although the City has taken a proactive approach to reducing jail sentences, with plans to close Rikers Island, the second largest prison complex in the country, questions remain about the impact the new approaches will have on men and women of color.


Tables courtesy of John Jay Misdemeanor  Justice Project.

Young men of color experienced the most dramatic increases and decreases for misdemeanor crimes such as marijuana charges, theft of service charges, trespassing charges, resisting arrest charges, and weapons charges, the study found.


Males are also nine times more likely to be arrested than females for marijuana charges.

Currently, New York City has the lowest crime rates and jail admission rates in decades, researchers stated.

While marijuana and other drug arrests have decreased in recent years, the number of arrests for charges more likely to be ‘complaint driven’, such as person and victim related property charges, have increased among both black and white populations.

Since 1993, there has been a 53 percent increase in “complaint-driven” charges for whites and a 72 percent increase for blacks.

The study called the increase “striking” and suggested that, possibly, there is a greater willingness by community members to call the police.

Also noteworthy: Prostitution charges among men have significantly increased.

In 1993, women were 80 percent more likely to be arrested for prostitution than men, but in 2016, the numbers were about equal.

The study did not give an explanation for the dramatic increase of prostitution arrests among men.

Overall, New York is making strides to reduce criminal sentences for non-felony offenses, such as implementing the Criminal Justice Reform Act in July 2017, which creates the presumption that some behaviors such as public drinking, public urination, littering and noise and park violations will result in a civil rather than criminal summons.

Other avenues for reducing jail and prison time include speeding up case processing, facilitating easier bail payments, the creation of a new pretrial risk assessment instrument, and the diversion of people with mental illness, the study said.

The Misdemeanor Justice Project is headed by Preeti Chauhan, Ph.D., an Associate Professor in Psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the Graduate Center, City University of New York.

Megan Hadley is a staff writer for The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.


Are the Opioid Crisis and Murder Increases Linked?

As the opioid epidemic has shifted to illegal drugs, the violent underground market may explain the rise in murder totals in some cities in recent years, says criminologist Richard Rosenfeld of the University of Missouri St. Louis.

The U.S. murder total rose in 2015, 2016, and the first half of 2017. Meanwhile, an opioid epidemic has led to the deadliest drug overdose crisis in U.S. history, with nearly 64,000 drug overdose deaths in 2016. A criminal justice expert says that these two crises may be related, reports The connection isn’t obvious at first glance. Drug and opioid overdoses have been increasing for decades, while the increase in the murders has been going on for only a few years. For much of the drug epidemic, the big cause of the rise in overdose deaths was opioid painkillers. These opioids were first obtained legally, with a doctor prescribing them and a pharmacy dispensing the drugs. Recently, the opioid epidemic began to shift toward illicit drugs. Starting around 2011, opioid painkiller overdose deaths began to level off, and heroin overdose deaths began to increase. Then, starting in 2014, illicit fentanyl overdose deaths began to skyrocket.

It’s this transition to the illicit market that criminologist Richard Rosenfeld of the University of Missouri St. Louis says may have helped cause a rise in murders: Because illegal drug markets tend to be much more violent than legal drug markets, the greater use of illicit opioids came with more violence. “As demand for illicit drugs increases, people enter the underground drug market to purchase the drug,” Rosenfeld says. “Those underground markets tend to be relatively volatile and sometimes violent places.” In 2015, the white homicide victimization rate rose by 8.2 percent. Rosenfeld said, “It’s the largest single-year percentage increase in white homicides, with the exception of the 2001 terrorist attack, since the early 1990s.” He argues that the opioid epidemic can help explain the increase. Although the epidemic has spread to black communities, the crisis has hit white communities much harder.


‘Jackpotting’ Schemes Take Cash From ATMs in U.S.

“Jackpotting,” a sophisticated crime in which thieves install malicious software and/or hardware at ATMs that forces the machines to spit out huge volumes of cash on demand, has hit the United States.

ATM “jackpotting” — a sophisticated crime in which thieves install malicious software and/or hardware at ATMs that forces the machines to spit out huge volumes of cash on demand — has long been a threat for banks in Europe and Asia. Last week, the U.S. Secret Service began warning financial institutions that jackpotting attacks have now been spotted targeting cash machines in the U.S., Krebs on Security reports. To carry out a jackpotting attack, thieves first must gain physical access to the cash machine. From there they can use malware or specialized electronics to control the operations of the ATM.

On Friday, NCR sent an advisory to customers saying it had received reports from the Secret Service and other sources about jackpotting attacks against ATMs in the U.S. The company said, “This represents the first confirmed cases of losses due to logical attacks in the U.S. This should be treated as a call to action to take appropriate steps to protect their ATMs against these forms of attack and mitigate any consequences.” The Secret Service is warning that organized criminal gangs have been attacking stand-alone ATMs in the United States using “Ploutus.D,” an advanced strain of jackpotting malware first spotted in 2013. Crooks reportedly are activating so-called “cash out crews” to attack front-loading ATMs manufactured by ATM vendor Diebold Nixdorf. Fraudsters dressed as ATM technicians attached a laptop computer with a mirror image of the ATMs operating system along with a mobile device to the targeted ATM. “The targeted stand-alone ATMs are routinely located in pharmacies, big box retailers, and drive-thru ATMs,” says a confidential Secret Service alert.


Sessions Gives Trump Credit for Violent Crime Drop

The FBI says reports of violent crime in the U.S. dropped .8 percent in the first six months of 2017. Murders went up 1.5 percent. Attorney General Jeff Sessions cites the administration’s increase in prosecutions for violent crime.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions is embracing new FBI data as evidence that the U.S. has turned the tide in its battle against violent crime, a shift he credits in large part to the policies of President Trump. The FBI numbers, covering the first six months of 2017, show overall reported violent crime declined by 0.8 percent, with rape and robbery each declining by more than 2 percent compared with 2016, reports Politico. However, murder increased by 1.5 percent. The FBI referred to the reduction in crime as “slight.”

Sessions said in an op-ed piece in USA Today that the report is evidence that Trump is delivering on the vow he made in his jarring inaugural speech last year to put an end to what he termed “American carnage.” While the statistics show the murder numbers still rising, particularly in big cities, the attorney general stressed that the increase in early 2017 was lower than in 2016, which saw a dramatic 8.6 increase. The attorney general attributed the declines, in part, to the administration’s decisions to bring more prosecutions for violent crime, to give prosecutors more discretion to file more serious charges and to encourage more “respect” for police.” Critics disputed that conclusion. “They’re correct that crime in 2017 is down…but there’s no evidence whatsoever that this is due to the administration’s policies,” said Inimai Chettiar of the Brennan Center for Justice. “Policies implemented only a few months ago can’t bring down crime. Crime is a very complex issue.”