Chicago's homicide crisis gets national attention, but Baltimore's is much worse

Chicago's homicide crisis gets national attention, but Baltimore's is much worse.

Chicago saw 762 murders in 2016, according to police there, the highest total in 20 years and enough to spark national outrage. President-elect Donald Trump tweeted on Monday that "If Mayor can't do it he must ask for Federal help!" The TV news program 60 Minutes aired a segment on Sunday titled "Crisis in Chicago," calling conditions there like a "war zone" and noting "a drop in the kind of police work that law enforcement says is critical to preventing crime." The report found that morale in the department had plummeted after the killing of Laquan McDonald, a 17-year-old who was shot 16 times by a police officer while moving away from him, and activity like arrests and citizen stops had dropped drastically. Mayor Rahm Emanuel this fall outlined a plan to address the problem by filling vacancies and adding new officers in patrol and supervisory positions to expand the force to 13,500, a costly step at a time when the city is facing severe budget problems but one he says is necessary to protect public safety.

But if the violence in Chicago is a crisis demanding an all-hands-on-deck approach, what would you call the situation in Baltimore?

We ended 2016 with 318 killings. Extrapolate that to a population the size of Chicago's, and you'd get 1,390 — nearly double the number that has sparked national outrage. Meanwhile, the police force in Chicago that Mayor Emanuel and others believe is stretched unconscionably thin is, proportionally, larger than Baltimore's is today. Before Mr. Emanuel's hiring surge, Chicago had about 45 officers per 10,000 people; if he succeeds in bringing the force to 13,500, the ratio will be about 50 per 10,000. In Baltimore, the sworn staff now stands at 2,528, or about 41 per 10,000 residents.

The size of the police force isn't everything. The quality of the officers in terms of training and experience matters. So do deployment strategies and efforts to engage the community. But consider this: According to the Department of Justice, Baltimore had substantially more officers — 2,861 — in 1990, and more than 3,000 by 2000, numbers that increased even further during the O'Malley era. The number of officers now is historically low at a time when rates of murder and other violence are historically high. We doubt this is a coincidence.

The Sun's Kevin Rector reported Monday on the department's annual community policing report, which the legislature required it to compile after the rioting following Freddie Gray's death shone a spotlight on the poor relations between officers and those they are sworn to protect. It showed not only a drop in the overall size of the force in the last year — from 2,646 to 2,528 — but also in the number of officers working "sector patrol" or neighborhood beats. Fewer than 1,000 officers were doing those jobs, down from 1,102 a year before, despite what the report describes as the department's renewed commitment to such patrols as a key component to efforts at improving police-community relations.

Meanwhile, homicide detectives are swamped with unsolved murders from 2016 and 2015. They cleared less than 40 percent of cases last year, a slight improvement over the year before but calamitous by historical standards; city police used to clear in excess of 80 percent of cases. Clearance rates in the United States have been in decline for years, but the national average is still better than 20 points higher than Baltimore's rate. Johns Hopkins gun violence expert Daniel Webster says there isn't much good data on the relationship between unsolved homicide and non-fatal shooting cases and additional violence, but it stands to reason that there would be one. Cases that aren't cleared by police are too often cleared by the streets, leading to the type of reciprocal killings that plague Baltimore.

The city has deliberately reduced the size of the police force in the last two years as a budget cutting measure, both by eliminating positions and holding vacancies open. Mayor Catherine Pugh clearly needs to rethink that policy, but it may take more than that. The decline in the department's staffing comes at a time when officials are redoubling their recruitment efforts, particularly with an aim to get more city residents on the force. The department held 29 recruiting events in the city in 2016, up from 12 in 2015, though less than 20 percent of the force currently lives in Baltimore, down slightly from the previous year. Mayor Pugh has suggested added incentives to get people to join the force and live in the city, and we certainly support those efforts. But the department also needs to consider its advancement and retention policies so it doesn't continually serve as a training ground for officers who decamp for the suburbs when they gain some experience.

And there's a lot more to the department's staffing than just the raw numbers. How many officers are on light duty, medical leave or military leave? How many officers are nearing retirement? Has the department been able to staff its new patrol schedule effectively, given the declines in the sworn force? The City Council needs to dig into the details. Baltimore is in the midst of a homicide crisis. It should start acting like it.

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