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News Opinion Editorial

Baltimore's rising death toll

The spike in gun violence over the weekend that saw eight people killed, including two women, and 12 others wounded is a reminder that despite the progress Baltimore has made in recent years, crime in the city remains unacceptably high. Whether the problem stems from staffing problems in the police department that have forced cops to pull double shifts, an increase in gang violence associated with the drug trade, flaws in the city's crime-fighting strategy, hot weather or some other factor, this is the second year in a row the city has been losing ground against violent offenders. City Police Commissioner Anthony Batts and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake need to make reversing that trend their top priority. But to do that they need to convey a sense that this is something different than business as usual.

Since the beginning of the year, 110 people have been killed in violent incidents, and another 173 were victims of non-fatal shootings. That's about 10 more people in each category than at this point last year, and last year's total represented a nearly 10 percent increase over the year before, when the city recorded fewer than 200 homicides for the first time since the 1970s. While no one can say precisely what is causing the current uptick in homicides and shootings, it's clear that if continued it threatens to undermine every other effort by officials to grow the city's population by attracting new residents and businesses. Simply put, if people don't feel safe, they won't want to live here.

A police spokesman's remark over the weekend that "we're pretty satisfied with the way the city is headed, violence-wise" didn't help. Nor did the fact that neither the mayor nor the commissioner responded to requests for comment until today.

Ms. Rawlings-Blake, who has been out of town for the National Conference of Mayors convention in Las Vegas, issued a statement today promising "to do everything we can to reduce violence and make our neighborhoods safer." And at a news conference, Commissioner Batts tried to reassure the public by characterizing the weekend's spike in homicides as essentially a statistical blip in an otherwise encouraging picture in which police have the situation well under control. He said the department was working hard to find out what was behind the most recent spate of violence and pledged to do whatever was necessary to make sure it remained an unfortunate but isolated series of incidents rather than the new normal. In general, he said, overall crime was down and the department was making strides toward maintaining its progress in reducing the number of homicides over the last decade.

It's certainly true that conditions are better than they were during the 300-murder-a-year days of the 1990s. But we also can't wait until we get back to those horrific conditions before we sound the alarm. The "spike" in murders Mr. Batts spoke of didn't begin just this weekend; homicides have been trending upward for the last year. The events of this weekend may be the most startling evidence of it, but five of the first six months of this year have seen homicide totals higher than they were in 2012, and the last half of 2012 was deadlier than the same period in 2011. For better or worse, that's what shapes public perception of Baltimore as a place to live and work, and contrary to what Mr. Batts suggests, right now things don't look as if the city is making progress, and they don't look at all as if the situation is under control.

It would be unfair, of course, to say Mr. Batts is at fault for this weekend's violence. The reasons homicides periodically rise and fall stem from a complex interaction of many factors, only some of which are predictable or subject to police intervention. We don't know why it appears to be happening in Baltimore at this time, after so many years of declining murder rates.

But we can judge the commissioner and the mayor on their reactions to these events. The concrete steps the police are taking — increased patrols, investigations to determine whether the incidents are connected — are well and good. But we also need leaders who will channel our moral outrage against violence, and bland assurances that we maintain our commitment to "target repeat violent offenders, gangs and illegal guns," as Ms. Rawlings-Blake said in her statement, don't do the trick. The less shocked we are at bloody weekends like this one, the more we risk them becoming the rule rather than the exception.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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