Baltimore's deadly May

If now isn't the time to start pointing fingers in discussing Baltimore violence, when is?

Baltimore just endured what appears to be its highest homicide rate for a single month since it started keeping track of killings. The 43 murders in May were the most of any month since 1972, and on a per capita basis they outstrip that grim record by far. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake took note of the killings Sunday at a ceremony to honor McKenzie Elliot, a 3-year-old who was killed by a stray bullet in broad daylight and whose murder remains unsolved 10 months later. She said it's not the time to point fingers or assign blame. "We have to do better," she said. "We have to want more."

We will grant that a single month can be a statistical blip and that there is only so much the mayor and police department can do to stop individuals bent on killing one another. But we don't think it is at all unreasonable to start asking questions about leadership in a city that, over the last month, was less safe by some measures than it has been at any point in recorded history.

Much attention has been paid to whether the police are failing to do their jobs in the best way possible, either because they are afraid they will be prosecuted if they make a mistake or because residents in some inner city neighborhoods are actively obstructing their work. Either or both could be a factor — arrests were down sharply last month — but blaming them for the record pace of killings presumes that bad actors are roaming the streets at all times seeking to do harm only to be dissuaded by the presence of the police. We rather doubt that.

A much more compelling theory that has been gaining currency recently is that last month's riots disrupted the economics of Baltimore's drug trade. Pharmacy owners say looters hauled away huge quantities of narcotics during the raids, drugs that have substantial street value. Del. Dan K. Morhaim wrote about the issue on The Sun's op-ed page recently and noted similar thefts and a similar rise in violence in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. "Sadly, every city and region has well-established lines of distribution of illegal drugs and narcotics," Dr. Morhaim, an emergency room physician, wrote. "When those distribution lines are disrupted — in our case by the Baltimore riots — drug distribution chaos ensues."

Economics tells us that a flood of drugs into the market would wreak havoc with prices and that existing players would seek to protect their businesses from new competition. But whether enough drugs were stolen to substantially affect Baltimore's drug trade is impossible to know; pharmacy owners say they have yet to be interviewed and surveillance video from their stores is yet to be reviewed by the authorities. Both Baltimore Police and the federal Drug Enforcement Agency are investigating, but no comprehensive tally of what was stolen has yet been made.

Compounding matters, Operation Ceasefire, one of the city's most potentially effective tools to learn what's going on in the streets and to intervene before disputes turn violent, has been hamstrung by disagreements with City Hall. Ceasefire's executive director LeVar Michael, resigned a month before the riots out of protest for what he saw as a failure by the Rawlings-Blake administration to follow through on its promises of funding and resources for the program. Essentially, he argued that Ceasefire is supposed to offer carrots and sticks to get potentially violent criminals to change their ways, but Baltimore was offering only sticks. Others, including the intellectual father of Ceasefire, criminologist David M. Kennedy, whose organization has received all of the $415,000 Baltimore budgeted for the program, insists resources aren't the issue. Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health gun policy expert Daniel Webster, who has studied Ceasefire here and elsewhere, sides with Mr. Michael.

Whoever is right, the fact of the matter is that Mr. Michael, the Rawlings-Blake administration and the police department weren't on the same page from the beginning. The organization had no leadership at all during the protests and riots after Freddie Gray's death, and it only got a new executive director last week, after Baltimore had already seen a sustained spike in homicides. That Mr. Michael's resignation was one of four departures of criminal justice staffers in the Rawlings-Blake administration during the last few weeks raises alarming questions about whether there is any real direction at all from the mayor's office when it comes to fighting crime.

On Monday, Mayor Rawlings-Blake insisted that the city was making progress before last month and expressed confidence in her administration's crime fighting strategies. She pointed to the success of the Safe Streets program in all but eliminating gun violence in the areas where it operates. Indeed, it has been effective, but it covers only a tiny portion of the city, and the mayor's validation of the program wasn't accompanied by any commitment to expand it.

In recent years, when crime has spiked, mayors have been able to note that however bad things might have been, they weren't as bad as the bad old days of the 1990s or 1970s. That is no longer true. If that doesn't make this a time to point fingers and ask questions about the city's leadership and ability to respond to a challenge, we don't know what would be.

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