Baltimore's Western Police District, the part of town where 25-year-old Freddie Gray was fatally injured following his arrest in April and where the subsequent protests and violence were centered, has seen nearly as many murders so far this year as it did in all of 2014. Of the 95 homicides so far this year, 28 have occurred in the 22 days since the Monday when riots spread throughout West Baltimore. Is there some sort of causal relationship between the surge in violent crime and the recent civic unrest? We don't know. But we can say for certain that the city's tepid response to it is directly related to a post-Freddie Gray crisis in leadership. This is just as much a time to rally the city as the aftermath of the riot was, but instead we're getting finger-pointing, resignation and shopworn promises.
The Fraternal Order of Police and other law enforcement groups are blaming the crime surge on poor morale among the ranks as a result of State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby's decision to criminally charge the six officers involved in Freddie Gray's death. The local NAACP is shooting back at the FOP, saying its criticism of Ms. Mosby and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is "borderline racist." As if the FOP would not defend its members no matter who was in charge of the city. The police sent some top commanders to walk the streets of the Western District and to observe that the people who live there actually care about the killings in their community just as much as the police do. Imagine! And Mayor Rawlings-Blake, who had been relatively silent about the crime spree, assured us that it "will not be tolerated" and that "every available resource will be utilized to make our community safer." Had it not been before?
Give the mayor some credit, she skipped the International Council of Shopping Centers convention this week in Las Vegas to stick around town. But there's a difference between being present and having a presence. The most prominent voices so far in discussing the recent rise in violence have come from those representatives of the police force who say officers are being timid in performing their duties for fear that they, too, could find themselves prosecuted. That kind of talk demands a forceful response. If it's true — and we hope it is not for the vast majority of cops — the mayor and police commissioner need to make clear to the rank and file and the watching public that good police work does not require brutal tactics. And if it's not true, the mayor needs to defend the city's hard-working police from the self-inflicted slander that they're sitting back and letting the violence continue.
What we've gotten instead is a shrug: "People have said, 'Well, it's because morale is down,' or, 'It's because the officers were charged,'" the mayor said Monday. "We don't know that."
Into that vacuum, unhelpful voices are chiming in. Disappointingly, the NAACP is among them. Though we are happy to see the group attempting to rally the community through a "Stop the violence 'By any Means Necessary'" event, its letter to FOP President Gene Ryan struck a racially divisive tone at a time when the city can't afford division of any kind.
We are thankful to those like Munir Bahar, a community activist and a founder of the 300 Men March, who are seeking grassroots solutions to the violence. Such efforts are crucial, but they are no substitute for strong municipal leadership. We need a strong vision for the path forward after Freddie Gray's death revealed the city's deep wounds. What we have is the mayor's vague #OneBaltimore campaign, which is fleshed out in all of two sentences of explanation on the city's website: "In the wake of the recent painful events that occurred in Baltimore City, One Baltimore was established to assist residents in need. Through collaborative efforts, leaders and community organizations are teaming up together to strengthen neighborhoods and restore damaged businesses and homes."
Ms. Rawlings-Blake has hired marketing executive Michael Cryor — the same person who helped design then-Mayor Martin O'Malley's Believe campaign a decade ago — and he said it is clear that the community is demanding "dramatic and non-trivial change in the direction of the community." But what the initiative consists of so far appears to be an effort to channel donations into doing somewhat more of things we are already doing — summer jobs for youth and enhanced recreational opportunities — plus establishing a task force to figure out the rest.
We realize there are no easy answers to the injustices and inequities exposed by Freddie Gray's death, but that doesn't excuse the mayor and other leaders from providing strong direction now to address the clear and present threat of violence that faces his neighborhood and others throughout the city.