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'Rocking you to sleep'

The “code” has many connotations on Baltimore streets. To some it's a “gangster” or street code that strictly prohibits snitching to police. To others it's a set of guidelines for when violence is prohibited — no shooting near children or the elderly, for instance — and when violence is warranted, or even required.

The Black Guerrilla Family, Baltimore's most powerful gang, distributes typewritten and handwritten rule books to members on the streets and in jail cells. The militaristic rules dictate that infractions can lead to punishment, sometimes death, and include protocols for carrying out violence, such as no shooting near “religious institutions.”

Covington, the hit man who says he was an enforcer for the BGF gang, describes the “golden rules” as nuanced in some ways, clear-cut in others.

You're never supposed to snitch, even on your enemy, he said. And you're not supposed to target your enemy's “law-abiding citizens” — family members who aren't in the drug game. But if those relatives are “in the life,” he said, they can be targeted.

Nowadays, however, rules that might have helped to keep a lid on random, collateral violence are regularly broken, according to law enforcement as well as community activists and residents.

Davis, the police commissioner, noted that about half of shootings in Baltimore are carried out in the daytime and most are outside.

Baltimore homicide detective Vernon Parker said perpetrators no longer use darkness “as a mask.” They are “more bold,” he said, shooting near churches, schools and other public places.

“Everybody wants to be a killer. It's more killings going on now because everybody feel like they got to prove themselves.”

- Devante Turner-Fordbey, who survived 27 shots

“People more cold-hearted these days than when I was growing up,” said Fordbey, the man who survived 27 shots. “Everybody wants to be a killer. It's more killings going on now because everybody feel like they got to prove themselves.

“Back in the day, I was told, it was like a kind of rule: The old dudes wouldn't allow outsiders to come in the 'hood, and everybody respected the women and children. Now, it's like no respect for nothing. People don't care.”

In West Baltimore this summer, shooters opened fire at a church after a funeral and at a candlelight vigil, both being held for other shooting victims. Six people were wounded in those attacks. Eight people were shot last weekend in East Baltimore steps from a makeshift memorial where three weeks earlier a man died and two women were injured in a triple shooting.


In Chicago, a South Side gang war sparked a series of shootings. Last year's retaliatory execution of 9-year-old Tyshawn Lee, which became emblematic of the ruthlessness plaguing that city, led his father this year to shoot the girlfriend of a suspect in his son's killing, according to police.

The challenge for police is knowing when someone might pull the trigger. Police departments nationwide have turned to predictive policing to try to understand who might be the next killer, or next on a hit list.

Chicago police have created the Strategic Subject List, the product of an algorithm that calculates someone's propensity to become a party to violence. A person's score is based on previous police contacts and criminal activity, known affiliations with gang members, social connections or networks, and past injuries from gunshots or assaults.

Once a person lands on the list, Chicago police make in-person visits to warn of the “consequences that will result should violent activity continue.” Police hope to reach out to 1,500 people this year.

They make up a fraction of the city's population but take part in an outsized share of the violence — in the first three months of this year, about three-quarters of the shooting victims and homicide suspects were already on the list.

In Baltimore, a similar undertaking has identified 600 “trigger pullers,” who police believe are the most likely to shoot or be shot. People land on the list for a combination of factors, including a history of violent crime or handgun violations, parole or probation, involvement in previous gun violence.

Officers monitor them with a “laser focus,” said Baltimore police Col. Stanley Brandford.

In many cities, it's a select club. Suspects and targets often know each other. They may have been friends, lived on the same the street or even be related. Many are in the drug trade together. That familiarity allows for face-to-face disagreements that can end with a trigger pull.

“The distance has closed in a lot of these cases, and now they're up on each other,” said Brandford, who has led the Baltimore police homicide unit two times in his career. “These guys stay in these neighborhoods. They really don't travel very far. And the opportunity to get close and do some damage is prevalent in some of these neighborhoods.”

Baltimore's most lethal neighborhoods

We ranked Baltimore neighborhoods by their lethality rates. Click on a neighborhood below to see its statistics.

# Shootings since 2011

  • > 0
  • > 59

For a fullscreen, interactive version on mobile devices, click here.

Source: Baltimore Police Department

Police say a common tactic shooters use to gain proximity is to work with an accomplice who knows the target. The accomplice lures the target to an area, putting the person at ease to ensure a blind-side attack.

In gang parlance, it's known as “rocking you to sleep.”

Criminals today know to get close to their target and fire a lot of bullets, said Stuart Myers, a former police officer who runs Op-Tac International, which trains law enforcement in Maryland and elsewhere on weapons and tactics. That's because most criminals aren't good shots, he said.

Even police officers, who train and are certified, miss their targets more than they hit them. One study put the average hit rate for officers at less than 30 percent.

“If you're close enough to a target, you could close your eyes and pull the trigger,” Myers said. He estimated that range is within three yards. Then, he said, “you will hit your target.”

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Shooters are also reaching for high-caliber guns with large magazines to ensure they hit their mark, according to advocates working to stem the violence. In some neighborhoods, friends or drug crews pool money to buy guns, and they become shared weapons on a given street corner.

Chris Wilson said shooters prefer long magazines, as well as hollow-point bullets, which expand upon impact, causing greater tissue damage and blood loss. The “extendos,” which carry more bullets, have become “an obsession” in street culture, he said.

“When you get a gun, you got to put an extended on it. You got to. That's policy. You got to be official,” said Wilson, who grew up in Washington, where he was in more than a dozen shootouts.

He was sentenced to life in prison at 17 after he shot and killed a man. He served nearly 15 years and moved to Baltimore, where he started a contracting company that connects ex-offenders and the unemployed with jobs.

Former Baltimore Deputy Police Commissioner Jerry Rodriguez, who spent the last few years of his law enforcement career in Baltimore after more than 25 years with the Los Angeles Police Department, said he was struck by the “level of determination” among killers in Baltimore. He noted the high number of head shots.

“I think there's a meaning behind that. I think there's a purpose behind that,” he said. “It's sending a message, but it's also making sure the outcome is what they want.”

Rodriguez, who works for a company developing technological solutions for police departments, said he found “a much more personal type of killing in Baltimore” — a city of 92 square miles — compared to Los Angeles, which sprawls over 470 square miles.

But even on the West Coast, police have noted a shift in shooting dynamics. In Los Angeles, gangs in the 1990s often carried out drive-by shootings, which could be indiscriminate and ineffective if the intent was to kill someone in particular. In the last decade, police said, they've been getting out of the car.

“You want to kill 'em, not wing 'em.”


“You want to kill 'em, not wing 'em,” said LAPD Homicide Detective Chris Barling, describing the mentality of shooters.

Police also note an almost cavalier attitude among killers.

In Baltimore, a gunman caught on video burst into a barbershop in 2013 and pulled the trigger, but his weapon jammed, so he briefly took a step back, fixed it and took aim again. A gunman who had just shot a man in the head late last year did a three-point turn in his car with a nonchalance noted by Davis, the police commissioner, who said he took his time and “drove away like it was nobody's business.”

Covington, who said in a series of jailhouse interviews with The Sun that he killed 14 or 15 people and helped carry out hits on several others, explained that he believes the majority of them deserved to die. They were drug dealers, criminals — “people just like me,” he said.

He does say that he wishes he hadn't targeted one young victim, a teenager.

“But generally speaking, I never really think about it,” he said.


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