After nearly a decade of steady declines, Baltimore has surpassed the grim milestone of 200 homicides for the second straight year. If the killing continues at the current rate, it will far exceed 2012's total of 217. What makes this particularly disturbing is that all the indications suggest that what we're seeing isn't just a temporary statistical blip but the start of what could be a long-term upward trend.
Now is the time for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, City Police Commissioner Anthony Batts, the State's Attorney's Office and the City Council to declare unequivocally and with one voice that this is a completely unacceptable development that demands their complete attention. At the same time the public must demand that Baltimore officials hold themselves and each other accountable for turning around the upswing in killings, starting now. There's no more urgent task facing city government because it's become obvious that if this situation is allowed to continue, not only will it get worse, it will put at risk every other initiative the city is taking to improve the quality of life here.
Commissioner Batts says he’s outraged by the violence, but he can no longer avoid the fact that much of the increase in homicides coincids with his tenure as the city’s top cop, which began last September. He owns it now, and it’s up to him to show that the changes he has introduced in the department are actually having an impact on the crime statistic that most defines Baltimore’s public image. He trumpeted the indictment of 48 alleged Black Guerrilla Family gang members on Thursday as the sort of thing that will bring down violent crime. That sounds good, but we’ve seen big indictments before that haven’t changed the reality on the streets.
Granted, yearly homicides are not always the best indicator of how well the police department is coping with the city's most violent offenders; the numbers can go up or down unpredictably because of any number of factors beyond the department's control. But if a long-term decline suddenly turns into a sustained upward trend, that's a sign something isn't working, and it's Mr. Batts' job to find out what it is and fix it.
Mr. Batts hired an outside consultant earlier this year to come up with a strategic plan for the police department that was supposed to take 90 days to complete. The review cost the city $285,000, yet officials say a draft of the report still isn't ready for release. It's past time for Mr. Batts to tell the public the broad outlines of how he intends to start bringing city homicide numbers down again. He needs to speak up, and soon.
Similarly, City State's Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein needs to look at what his office can do to help police start moving homicides back onto a downward trajectory. He came into office promising a more professional operation that would cooperate more closely with police and bring results even in tough cases. He is up for re-election next year, and just like Mr. Batts, he needs to show that the staff and policy changes he's introduced since he became Baltimore's top prosecutor three years ago are making the city safer.
The mayor and the City Council likewise need to recognize that there's little chance Baltimore can achieve any of the ambitious goals it has set for itself if it can't succeed in shaking its grimy reputation as the murder capital of the mid-Atlantic region. No one wants to live in a post-industrial Dodge City where gunfights and execution-style killings are a daily occurrence on the streets. If Baltimore wants to attract new businesses, grow its population, increase its tax base and reform its school system, it simply can't afford to risk backsliding into its old violent ways.
Finally, the people of Baltimore need to demand better from themselves and their leaders. A wave of killings this summer led to a burst of public outrage, but it has not been sustained. If we allow ourselves to believe that Baltimore's violence is inevitable, it will be.
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