By Donna Owens
BALTIMORE (Reuters) - Baltimore recorded 43 murders in May, police said on Monday, the deadliest month in more than 40 years for a city already shaken by the death of a black man from injuries in police custody.
The Baltimore homicides were the most in any month since August 1972, when the city recorded 45 murders, according to police data. Three fatal shootings occurred on Sunday.
The city of about 620,000 people has tallied 116 murders so far this year, up from 81 in the same period in 2014, police said.
Black males made up most of the May murder victims in the majority African-American city. Along with the rise in homicides, the number of non-fatal shootings hit 219, versus 120 at the same time last year, police said.
The surge in killings followed the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who died on April 19 from spinal injuries suffered in police custody. His death has become part of a national debate on law enforcement treatment of minorities.
Gray's death led to protests and a day of rioting, arson and looting. Six officers have been charged in his death, including counts of murder and assault.
Among police patrol districts, the greatest number of murders for the year - 23 - took place in the Western district, where Gray lived.
Police leaders and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake have not pinpointed a reason for the increase. A spokesman for the mayor did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Asked if police were making fewer arrests after Gray's death, contributing to the murder rise, Police Commissioner Anthony Batts told reporters last week that there were "a lot of levels of confusion" among Baltimore officers.
Some were still shaken by the unrest surrounding Gray's death, and others were reluctant to face possible legal repercussions by making a questionable arrest, Batts said.
The U.S. Justice Department is investigating Baltimore police over the use of force and whether there were discriminatory practices.
The Baltimore Sun said some officials had speculated that the rise in violence could be attributed partly to the looting of drugs from pharmacies after Gray's death.
Police data going back to 1970 show that Baltimore recorded more killings in August 1972 and in December 1971, when there were 44 killings. But those murders took place when Baltimore had almost 300,000 more residents than it has now.
(Additional reporting by Ian Simpson in Washington; Editing by Peter Cooney)