Baltimore Fishbowl’s 18 top stories from 2018

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Photo by Elvert Barnes, via Flickr

It’s been a long year, Baltimore. There were travesties, from the mass shooting at a newsroom in Annapolis to the frighteningly familiar tally of 300-plus people murdered in the city limits, to the death of Baltimore County’s top official.

The city tried out new tools for transportation and embraced a vision for change with Complete Streets. Officials and voters banded together to stave off any attempts at privatizing the city’s water system. The council and Mayor Catherine Pugh renewed the city’s commitment to preserving racial equality with a new fund, plus rules requiring agencies to consider equity in their decisions.

And there were opportunities to reflect, like when kids trying to make some money washing windows became a flashpoint conversation topic, or make good out of the bad, as with multiple Baltimore Ceasefire weekends that brought Baltimoreans together to confront a tide of violence.

Here’s a list of 18 of Baltimore’s biggest storylines from 2018. While it’s far from exhaustive, it should help to recap many of the changes that happened in the Baltimore area this year, and guide you toward some of the issues we’ll likely be covering in the new year.

Embracing at the spot on Broadway where a man was shot on Sunday night, the last night of the Baltimore Ceasefire. Photo by J.M. Giordano.

Once again, more than 300 people have been murdered in Baltimore

It’s now been four years since Baltimore saw a year without 300 or more homicides. Most of those victims have been black men. This year was shaping up to be a better one with fewer killings early on. Mayor Pugh and then-Commissioner De Sousa repeatedly reminded media about drops achieved in violent and property, which they attributed to the multi-agency Violence Reduction Initiative.

Fast forward a few months from there into summer, and the writing was on the wall. There were shockingly violent weekends that left more than a dozen wounded or dead. Innocent bystanders became victims–including two children from the same family. The city’s youngest murder victim was 5-month-old Brailynn Ford, allegedly killed by her own father. The oldest was Dorothy Neal, 83, who police said was raped and murdered by a teenager.

Three-hundred represents a grave tally for a city that, only four years ago, logged 211 homicides, and had remained under 250 since 2007.

Activists like Erricka Bridgeford and the rest of her Baltimore Ceasefire team have been doing their part to prevent the normalization of endless murder, trying to undercut the epidemic from a cultural lens by telling those most affected by the violence, “Don’t be numb.” With any luck, the message will take hold in 2019. (Ethan McLeod)

Photo from April, via Kevin Kamenetz/Twitter

Kevin Kamenetz dies

In early May, hours after participating in a candidates’ forum at Bowie State University, Kevin Kamenetz awoke feeling sick at 2 a.m. at his Owings Mills home. He called 911 from outside the Chestnut Ridge Volunteer Fire Company, and two volunteers responded and brought him inside. It was there that he lost consciousness and his heart stopped beating. Less than two hours later, he was pronounced dead at St. Joseph’s Medical Center. The cause was cardiac arrest. He was 60.

More than 1,000 people came out to his funeral at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, including family, longtime friends, staff and a who’s who of Maryland politicos and power players. His wife and others remembered him as a dedicated family man and a confident, if humble political leader. He’s survived by Jill and his two sons, Karson and Dylan. Per Jmore, his wife, Jill Kamenetz, told the crowd, “He was in it to win it. I said, ‘Kevin, this campaign is killing you.’ But he said, ‘We’re in the last stretch.’”

While Baltimore County is now under new leadership, his successors and others have honored him. A little over a week after his death, the county unveiled the Kevin Kamenetz Arena in Cockeysville, a 12.7-acre equine arena and learning center. And near White Marsh, a developer plans to add a memorial in his honor, with a statue and a public park named after him, at the sprawling new Greenleigh at Crossroads development. (E.M.)

Five Capital Gazette staffers gunned down in their own newsroom

Rob Hiaasen. Wendi Winters. Gerald Fischman. John McNamara. Rebecca Smith. These five people went to work on June 28 like any other day, expecting to write and edit copy, or sell ads for Annapolis’ paper of record, The Capital.

Jarrod Ramos stormed into the Capital Gazette offices just after 2:30 p.m., wielding a shotgun that he used to shoot through the front and then open fire in the newsroom. In addition to killing to those five staffers, he wounded two others before police took him into custody. Ramos had a long-running feud with the paper, beginning over its coverage of a criminal harassment charge filed against him in 2011. He’s now charged with five counts of first-degree murder, among other offenses.

The horrid experience offered a somber moment for the country to reflect on the vitality of community journalism and the risks that those covering their towns and cities take, particularly in a country whose top elected official has dubbed media “the true enemy of the people.” The staffers lost, as well as those who survived, have since been honored repeatedly, including through a Newseum exhibit about the shooting, a dedicated seminar room at the University of Maryland’s journalism school and with a nod as a TIME Magazine “person of the year.” The City of Annapolis is also planning a memorial as a tribute to them, and to press freedom. (E.M.)

Republican incumbent Gov. Larry Hogan answers questions following the lone gubernatorial debate at Maryland Public Television in Owings Mills, Maryland, on Monday, Sept. 24, 2018. (Photo by Brooks DuBose/Capital News Service)

Hogan stays as Democratic leadership morphs

“In this deep blue state, in this blue year, with a blue wave, it turns out I can surf, and we had a purple surfboard.” Those were the words of Gov. Larry Hogan after he soundly beat Democrat Ben Jealous to become the first Republican governor to win re-election in Maryland since 1954. Though many expected a “blue wave” of voters upset with President Donald Trump that would sweep Democrats into office, Hogan had no problems defeating Jealous, and it was never really close.

That being said, there was a blue wave of sorts in Maryland, with county executive seats changing from Republican to Democrat in Howard and Anne Arundel counties, and a significant cohort of local progressive candidates, including Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., state Sens. Cory McCray, Mary Washington and Antonio Hayes, winning elections.

Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, wife of long-time Congressman Elijah Cummings, was elected to lead the Democratic Party going forward, and she promised to fix the party’s structural issues. (Brandon Weigel)

Image still from WBAL-TV’s Facebook Live.

A merry-go-round of police commissioners (and the secrecy of hiring Joel Fitzgerald)

After a near-record 342 killings in Baltimore in 2017, Mayor Catherine Pugh fired Kevin Davis in January and announced Darryl De Sousa, a three-decade department veteran, as his replacement. In the months after he was confirmed by City Council, De Sousa and Pugh appeared side-by-side frequently, touting year-over-year drops in violent and property crime.

Then came the indictment. Baltimore’s police commissioner hadn’t filed tax returns for the previous three years, and apparently had also falsified allowances, charitable donations and more dating back to 1999, we learned this month. He resigned in May.

Gary Tuggle, a deputy commissioner whom De Sousa had only months earlier recruited from the DEA in Philadelphia, stepped in to fill the void. Tuggle initially said he would apply for the permanent job, but in October he withdrew his name from the running, saying the department would need “five to seven years” to turn things around. He’s still acting commissioner, but…

…along comes Joel Fitzgerald, outgoing head of the Fort Worth Police Department. His name first appeared in a Twitter leak, only for Pugh to decline its veracity and further delay announcing her pick.

In November, it turned out to be true, anyway. Pugh’s nominee has drawn ire already from local lawmakers and media after the mayor’s office declined to release the results of his background investigation and Fitzgerald himself said no to sharing his resume (only for council members to release it). Many Baltimoreans hope the council will bring a healthy dose of skepticism and scrutiny to his confirmation hearings next month. (E.M.)

Gun Trace Task Force members (top row L-R) Thomas Allers, Momudo Gondo, Maurice Ward and Marcus Taylor, and (bottom row L-R) Jemell Rayam, Evodio Hendrix, Daniel Hersl and Wayne Jenkins. Images via the Baltimore Police Department.

Most of the GTTF officers were sentenced, and the case has gotten bigger

More than a dozen people have now been convicted for participating in the infamous Gun Trace Task Force racketeering conspiracy. The final two of the group of former officers originally charged in the case, Daniel Hersl and Marcus Taylor–the only ones who took their cases to trial instead of pleading guilty–were found guilty of racketeering, robbery and overtime fraud in February. Others have since pleaded guilty, most recently ex-Philadelphia police officer Eric Snell, who helped traffic heroin and cocaine for the rogue Baltimore cops across state lines, and some of the officers’ associates.

Sentences have been handed down: The unit’s former supervisors, Wayne Jenkins and Thomas Allers, received 25 and 15 years in prison, respectively; GTTF members Maurice Ward and Evodio Hendrix received the lowest sentences so far at seven years.

And the case has since grown in scope as other law enforcement have been called out for their alleged involvement. Baltimore County police said one officer has been suspended and another no longer works for the department after being named during trial testimony. Matthew Ryckman, a former BPD detective who went on to work for the ATF, resigned this fall after admitting he lied in police reports, stole money and misused surveillance gear while working with the GTTF. And federal authorities are reportedly still digging around and asking about other officers. As Edward Ericson Jr. foretold back in February at the end of Hersl’s and Taylor’s trials, this case is far from finished. (E.M.)

Baltimore City Public Schools headquarters on North Avenue. Photo by Eli Pousson/Baltimore Heritage, via Flickr.

City Schools’ deteriorated infrastructure becomes national news

It began with a viral video from Aaron Maybin. The retired NFL linebacker-turned-art teacher posted a clip of his students huddled together in winter coats inside their classroom at Matthew A. Henson Elementary. It was a frigid early January day, and the heat had stopped working at that school and numerous others.

National outlets picked up the story, and by the end of the month, Maybin had helped raise more than $80,000 to pay for winter gear to keep Baltimore’s kids warm.

But the problem wasn’t isolated to just Henson Elementary. The same day Maybin posted his video, teachers called on the school district to shut down all schools amid reports of failing heat infrastructure–a request CEO Sonja Santelises at first declined, then obliged a day later. The next week, parents, students and concerned locals packed City Schools headquarters to air their grievances over the heating woes. Meanwhile, the city and school district sent in engineers to fix HVAC systems, and days later said they had all been repaired, only for new problems to emerge. Later that month, the district divulged that 140 buildings in all had suffered failures or maintenance issues.

HVAC issues re-emerged when the school year began and hot temperatures overpowered a number of schools’ air conditioning units, which didn’t inspire much confidence. We’ll learn soon if the school system is any better prepared for the cold in 2019. (E.M.)

Det. Sean Suiter. Photo via Baltimore Police Department.

Questions still swirl around Sean Suiter’s death

Nine months after Det. Sean Suiter was buried after sustaining a fatal gunshot wound in Harlem Park in November 2017, a panel of investigators in August determined Suiter had taken his own life. In a 207-page report–fraught with a few errors, notably–they made the case that Suiter, due to testify the day after he died in one of the Gun Trace Task Force officers’ cases, had been behaving erratically under intense pressure from federal investigators. They also said there was no evidence that he’d approached an unidentified man originally believed to have shot the detective.

There was also the reveal of an error by the medical examiner in the case: The bullet in Suiter’s head had entered through the right side, not the left, as originally documented. Furthermore, there was evidence showing the right-handed Suiter’s gun barrel had touched his own head, his DNA was found inside and there was blood spatter inside his shirt sleeve, suggesting he may have raised his service weapon to his head.

But the investigation produced no real finality in the case. Ex-Police Commissioner Kevin Davis, whom investigators criticized for publicly declaring that Suiter had been murdered by a “cold, callous killer,” called the report “absurd” and said the investigators approached it with a predetermined agenda. Suiter’s own wife also protested the findings, saying in an interview, “he would not leave his family like this.”

The medical examiner’s office still hasn’t taken the suicide conclusion to heart, leaving it categorized as a homicide. Tuggle said last week that the case is still an active murder investigation. (E.M.)

From left to right, Mayor Catherine Pugh, Gov. Larry Hogan, Congressman C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger and developer Marc Weller take questions from reporters. Photo by Brandon Weigel.

With no Amazon, elected officials pivot to Cyber Town U.S.A.

Well, the city and state lost out on Amazon’s HQ2, a shiny bauble put forth by the tech giant with the promise of 50,000 jobs. It’s probably for the best, since Amazon was basically asking cities to trip over themselves to offer the most lucrative financial incentive deal (which we still did, to be clear).

Instead, state and city officials gathered outside Rye Street Tavern in October to herald the founding of Cyber Town U.S.A. in Port Covington. Three firms, DataTribe, AllegisCyber and Evergreen Advisors, signed on to occupy new office space near the future headquarters of the local apparel company Under Armour. The hope is that others, seeing the wealth of talent being groomed at local colleges and the National Security Agency, will follow suit, making Port Covington a hub of cybersecurity.

Amazon ended up splitting its new home, and thus the jobs, between two of the most obvious places it could have landed: Crystal City, Virginia, and New York. (B.W.)

Dr. Leana Wen. Photo via Baltimore CIty Health Department.

Dr. Leana Wen goes to Washington

For nearly four years, Dr. Leana Wen led Baltimore City’s Health Department in fighting an epidemic of drug addiction, infant mortality and violence (as a public health issue, notably), among many other mortal threats.

In September, she announced she was leaving for a higher calling: The top post with Planned Parenthood in Washington D.C. Wen had already done battle with the feds on issues related to her new gig. In the spring, she sued (and won) over the Trump administration’s cancellation of millions in funding for teen pregnancy prevention programs, and also had Baltimore join a lawsuit with other cities against the government for “intentionally sabotaging” the Affordable Care Act.

Wen’s legacy lives on in the availability of over-the-counter naloxone and widespread educational initiatives for how to use it. And her legacy of pushing back against violence endures in Safe Streets, which she helped to flourish in Baltimore, to the point that the city has received state funds to expand the program enlisting ex-offenders and -gang members to intervene in confrontations before they escalate into violence. (E.M.)

Photo of Gilman Hall at Johns Hopkins University. Photo by callison-burch, via Flickr.

Hopkins elbows its way toward a private police force

When the 2018 legislative session began in Annapolis, creating a standalone police force for the private, sprawling Johns Hopkins University was not on the city’s priority list. But surprise: On March 5, Baltimore Del. Cheryl Glenn and Sen. Joan Carter Conway introduced bills to let any private university in Baltimore create its own police force with approval from the mayor, and Hopkins announced a plan to form its own department. It came days after Hopkins announced BPD Col. Melissa Hyatt would retire from the department to become the institution’s vice president for security.

The mid-session move took pretty much everyone by surprise. While administrators said it would make the campus safer, arguing it would help address crime issues on Hopkins’ campuses, many students, activists and neighbors lashed out, saying they actually felt more threatened by the idea of having even more armed police out patrolling campus and nearby communities. City officials, including the mayor, said they were on board, but others weren’t buying it

The effort died within weeks, with the city’s delegation in Annapolis pulling its support in late March. But now, after mulling it over through the summer, Hopkins has renewed its fight, holding a series of panel discussions and public meetings about the idea this fall. They’re now planning to get lawmakers to re-introduce the bills when the 2019 session begins on Jan. 9. (E.M.)

A November edition of The Baltimore Sun.

The Sun bids farewell to Calvert Street, and faces major changes

After nearly seven decades of calling Calvert Street home, The Sun left its modernist building for Sun Park, the plant in Port Covington where the paper is printed. Not only would it be harder to get to, say, the Baltimore City Council meeting or the press conference at police headquarters, the paper of record would also lose its metaphorical presence downtown among all the city and state institutions of power.

Months after the move was announced, publisher and editor-in-chief Trif Alatzas instituted a company-wide reorganization to take a digital-first approach to the company’s news gathering.

Even as it appears staffers have settled into their new, updated home and online-oriented workflow, the city’s newspaper of record faces other challenges, most alarmingly the threat by parent company Tribune Publishing of layoffs if the current round of buyouts does not meet financial targets. To date, political reporter Michael Dresser and veteran newsroom administrator Elaine Nichols are among the names of employees who took the buyout.

Others, including Ravens beat reporter Jeff Zreibec and features desk writers Tim Smith, Brittany Britto and Wesley Case, have left for new jobs or other reasons, with no replacements hired.

Topping it all off, the smaller community papers at Baltimore Sun Media Group, including The Capital in Annapolis, Carroll County Times and The Aegis in Harford County, unionized and called for higher wages and a more sustainable work environment. Management formally recognized the bargaining unit, but it looks as though negotiations will stretch into the new year. (B.W.)

The first Squeegee Corps pop-up in August 2017. Photo via Mayor Catherine Pugh/Twitter.

The war over squeegee kids

The issues surrounding squeegee kids really began in January, when Mayor Catherine Pugh released a video in which she saw a young man washing windows in the middle of a weekday near Martin Luther King Boulevard and scolded him. “Go to school! NOW!” Following criticism that the video was callous, a second clip was released showing Pugh trying to help the boy sign up for the Youth Works summer jobs program.

Fast forward to October, when a man was anonymously interviewed on several local networks after a window washer smashed his rear windshield. (As Baltimore Fishbowl later reported, the man is a business owner with a long history of raising suspicions about the activity of black youth in the Federal Hill neighborhood.)

Others in Baltimore began sharing stories about the squeegee kids, with some offering stories of harassment and threats and many others saying every interaction they’ve had with the window washers has been fine. In response to the backlash and a reported increase in confrontations, the Downtown Partnership said it would be deploying guards at popular intersections, and the mayor sought donations from the business community to help the kids land permanent jobs.

Anybody who actually bothered talking to the young people learned they were trying to make an honest buck and avoid getting caught up in gang life. As one teenager told us: “I’m not trying to get in trouble. I can make some money washing windows.” (B.W.)

The Nickel Taphouse. Image via Facebook.

The Baltimore dining scene’s existential crisis

It started with a rash of closings in January, ranging from Bagby Pizza Co. in Harbor East to Ryan’s Daughter in Belvedere Square to Dimitri’s Tavern in Hampden. More followed suit, and soon a narrative developed, thanks in no small part to some owners and managers who offered this theory: Eateries were closing because of the rising levels of crime.

As a result, a considerable amount of time in the early stages of 2018 was spent pondering and arguing about the state of dining in the city, and whether crime was keeping suburbanites from venturing downtown for a nice dinner. Media outlets launched investigations, columns were penned. And then, by about mid-summer, everyone moved on, even as more restaurants announced they were shutting their doors. What’s more, during the height of the conversation and in the months since, new restaurants kept opening, too. (B.W.)

Screenshot from Baltimore City Fire Department video.

Bike lane battles erupt, and Complete Streets becomes law

Sure, bike lanes can be contentious, but who knew they could get so personal? An off-duty Baltimore City Fire Department employee assaulted a cyclist at a public meeting about the Downtown Bike Network; the fire department made a home movie about why bike infrastructure is disruptive, even showing up outside the home of Bikemore executive director Liz Cornish to make its case; a cyclist testified at a hearing over that whole ordeal that a firefighter, also off-duty, had tailed her closely on Falls Road and harassed her.

Fire code, a rather wonky subject, played a pivotal role in all of this, leading council members to repeal a piece of code governing street clearance and align its language with more pedestrian-friendly Complete Streets regulations. More broadly, there was also the city’s enactment of Councilman Ryan Dorsey’s Complete Streets legislation. Signed by Mayor Catherine Pugh on Dec. 6, the law commits Baltimore to adopting guidelines catering to pedestrians, cyclists and public transit, rather than primarily cars, and to invest in roads and transit infrastructure in neighborhoods that need it the most. It also calls on the Department of Transportation to be transparent about how it decides to undertake projects, and requires DOT to craft a road-design manual with input from communities.

The agency is busy on that now. With other developments at play, including those dockless scooters and bikes whizzing around, and the pending completion of the Downtown Bike Network leading into summer of 2019, next year should bring new signs of pedestrian-oriented transformation around the city. (E.M.)

A Lime scooter in Washington D.C. Photo by Beyond DC, via Flickr.

Baltimore Bike Share dies, and dockless options live

Baltimore Bike Share never inspired much confidence. The system was shut down temporarily in fall of 2017 for repairs and maintenance, and it returned with a modest supply of 50 bikes that October. But it was hard to foresee the system’s implosion in such a short span. In July, Brian Seel broke the news that the system was already melting down again, with hundreds of bikes missing from the system and docks left empty or broken. Even the Baltimore Bike Share app had stopped reporting accurate numbers. A month later, officials killed the program.

But those ubiquitous electric scooters had already appeared on the scene by then, with Bird dropping off a fleet without warning. They quickly proved to be a hit. The city saw the opportunity, and on the same day they announced the death of Baltimore Bike Share, officials revealed plans for pilot initiatives with Bird and competitor Lime. Each company has been allowed to bring up to 1,000 of its vehicles–1,000 scooters apiece, plus 1,000 bikes for Lime–to the city. You can park them pretty much anywhere, and anyone with the right app and a credit card to put to an account can come along and scoop them up.

The pilot deals will soon end in February. From there, officials will draw up regulations for dockless transit in Baltimore. (E.M.)

Photo by jpellgen (@1179_jp), via Flickr

Vermin problems at public markets

Rats: One of Baltimore’s claims to fame. You see them in the streets and sidewalks, on bumper stickers and… in public markets?

This was a bad look for the city in 2018. Videos went viral, first of one of the rodents crawling all over some baked goods in a display case at Lexington Market, and then of two rats wandering the aisles of Northeast Market in C.A.R.E. The clips amassed 412,000 views combined, spawned a solid meme and did even more unquantifiable damage to people’s trust in eating and shopping in the historic, city-run marketplaces.

Pest control and health officials responded in both instances, and Baltimore Public Markets assured everyone it would put in place new protocols across all six of its merchant spaces. While it’s easier said than done to contain vermin, the city has since avoided any additional viral vermin content to further erode the public’s trust. And with overhauls planned or already in the works for four of Baltimore’s half-dozen public markets, fingers crossed that the pest situation will only continue to improve. (B.W.)

Image via JLL Property

Tradepoint Atlantic is moving forward

It was only six years ago that Bethlehem Steel’s “Beast of the East” in Sparrows Point shut down, marking the official end of an era. But a transformation has since been taking place in Southeast Baltimore County, with the developers behind Tradepoint Atlantic striving to turn the once-thriving manufacturing hub into an industrial complex for the 21st century.

This year was a major one for the development, thanks to Tradepoint Atlantic’s acquisition of a 150-acre parcel to round out its hold on the peninsula, and the signing of new tenants who plan to grow greens and store grain for chickens (alongside Amazon, FedEx and others who’ve already set up there). But the biggest step came this month, when Baltimore County approved a $78 million grant package to pay for new infrastructure at the 3,100-acre site.

Developers had originally planned to ask the county for $150 million in tax-increment financing–which is repaid by drawing from increased property tax revenues over time–but instead went with the grant package. With that money now approved, Tradepoint Atlantic can build five new public roads stretching 4.5 miles, four miles of sanitary sewers and more than six miles of water mains–all basic infrastructure needed to revitalize an industrial corner of the region. (E.M.)



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