Rodricks: Emboldened criminals, plenty of guns, unsophisticated motives

Two weeks ago, a tow-truck driver, apparently concerned about the city’s recently deployed speed cameras, asked if I knew of any along Northern Parkway. I said I did not. “All these homicides in Baltimore,” he groused, “and all they care about is money from speeding tickets.”

“Is that right?” I said. “That’s all we care about?”

“Seems that way.”

I recognized the guy’s voice. I’ve heard it before. It’s snarky and cynical. It mocks Baltimore as a failed state of high property taxes, sketchy revenue schemes and an outrageous level of criminality. Such views of the city are usually developed from a safe distance, informed more by AM talk radio and social media than by direct knowledge. I don’t pay much attention to it anymore.

Then, last week, I received a letter from a fellow Baltimore resident who complained that City Hall exhibited no urgency about the depressing pace of shootings and homicides. He said the city’s general response to the violence has been a “farce.”

I asked what he would do about the killings. His suggestions included tougher sentencing of violent offenders, more cops in uniform on the streets, more criminal cases deferred to federal prosecutors.

Good ideas, but nothing original. And no immediate remedy.

It’s not easy to come up with a single, surefire approach to stemming violence in Baltimore, especially at a time when the police also need to establish trust with the people they’ve sworn to serve and protect.

But the frustration and impatience is understandable. After the violent 1990s, most of us thought we would never again see years with 300-plus homicides. And yet, at the current pace of killing, we are in the middle of what could be the third consecutive one.

On Friday, Gov. Larry Hogan pulled the state’s annual grant to the Baltimore Criminal Justice Coordinating Council and transferred the money to the mayor’s office. The official reason: In Hogan’s view, the council has not done enough about violent crime.

The governor has the right to do what he did, but what does he want? What’s his answer to the homicides?

A pledge from judges to ignore plea deals and sentence every criminal defendant to the max? Does Hogan want Police Commissioner Kevin Davis to employ strategies tried before — cops in tactical vests, jeans and backward hats, “jump-out boys” making lots of arrests?

It all sounds so simple and excellent. All we’d have to do is suspend the consent decree with the Department of Justice and return to O’Malley-era arrest rates.

But that’s not going to happen. Baltimore is in the midst of what seems like a long chain-reaction accident.

Consider this pileup since the Freddie Gray rioting of April 27, 2015: the flooding of the streets with narcotics from the looting of 27 pharmacies and two methadone clinics; an ongoing opioid crisis that left 700 people in the city dead from overdoses last year; a police force diminished by retirement and resignations and the prosecution of officers; a scathing federal report on policing and police-community relations; the indictments of eight officers assigned to an elite gun unit; the welcome deployment of police body cameras, but now with questions about their use resulting in the dropping of several criminal cases.

And then there’s the insane violence — 247 homicides so far this year, as of late Friday.

I made the rounds one evening last month with Davis as he visited officers and citizens at three stops on the west side — Lexington Market, Harlem Park and Penn-North. Davis, an affable man, spends a lot of time talking to people on sidewalks, and encourages his officers to do the same.

I asked about the homicides. Why so many? Why does this continue?

Davis said many are the result of disputes — about debts, about sales territory — among drug dealers or between dealers and their customers.

But that’s been the case for years.

“And then,” he said, “the other nonsensical motives to murders in the city are simple matters of personal disputes that should stop at a verbal argument or maybe stop at a fistfight, but they end up in gunplay.”

I’ve heard that before, too. I pressed for a better answer, for some new factor or trend.

Davis mentioned, as he frequently does, “easy access to guns.” His officers make gun arrests every day, and yet there seems no end to the supply.

But that’s been the case for a long time, too. So I pushed Davis a little more for some insight on the ongoing insanity.

What’s new, he said, is the nature of the shooter, what he calls “a newly emboldened criminal element in our city post-2015. ... And when I mean more emboldened — they’re more likely to carry guns than they were before, and they’re more likely to engage in daytime violence now than they were before.”

And there’s nothing intriguing or extravagant about the motives for the killings.

“People are perplexed at the unsophisticated nature of murders in ... Baltimore.”

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