The fact that homicides in Baltimore City reached a four-year high last year — 234 as of Tuesday afternoon — can hardly come as a surprise to anyone who has witnessed the steady increase in murders since 2011. What did come as surprise to many was city Police Commissioner Anthony Batts' response Monday night to a television interviewer's question about what police can do about it. Mr. Batts told WBAL-TV's Jayne Miller that "everyday citizens" had no reason to worry about the carnage on the city's streets because "80 to 85 percent" of victims of the violence were African-American men involved in the drug trade — as if that somehow made the bloodshed more acceptable because it didn't affect white people. It was a shockingly insulting comment that suggested black lives were less important than white ones and that virtually every African-American man murdered in the city last year was a criminal who got what he deserved.
Mr. Batts' response makes one wonder whether the chief really knows what is going on in this city and whether his blase attitude toward the deaths of so many of its residents hasn't seeped down the ranks to infect his officers on the beat. It sounds suspiciously like an effort to shift the blame for the upward spiral in homicides onto the victims instead of the department and to ignore entirely the chief's own responsibility for the rise in murders since 2012, when he arrived in Baltimore.
That year was the first in decades in which homicides dropped below 200, and many people interpreted it as a milestone signaling that Baltimore was finally on the verge of shedding its image as one of the nation's most violent cities. Instead, two years later Baltimore finds itself bucking a national trend that has seen homicides decline precipitously in most other large cities previously known for deadly violence. This year, homicides were down by 25 percent in Oakland, Calif., by more than 20 percent in New Orleans and by 17 percent in Detroit. Even Chicago, where a spike in violence made headlines two years ago, saw a 19 percent decline in murders in 2013.
Earlier this year, Mr. Batts released a long-awaited consultant's report on how to reshape his department and drive down violent crime. But that 200-page document, compiled at a cost to taxpayers of $285,000, didn't really tell us anything we didn't already know. Essentially, it identified gun violence as Baltimore's most pressing problem and outlined a strategy in which police focused their efforts on getting illegal weapons off the street and going after the violent repeat offenders who commit most the city's serious crime.
There's nothing wrong with that strategy — in fact, it is one the department had pursued successfully since 2007. Yet its execution over the last two years has been seriously, one might even say fatally, flawed. As The Sun's Justin Fenton reported this week, the result has been another lost year in the city's ongoing fight against gun crime.
When Mr. Batts arrived as police chief in 2012, he reorganized the department's Violent Crimes Impact Section, whose mission was to target the relatively small number of "bad guys with guns" who commit the lion's share of homicides in the city. Part of Mr. Batts' motivation in making the change was in response to complaints of residents of some high-crime neighborhoods that they were being singled out for extra scrutiny by police simply because of where they lived. Mr. Batts undoubtedly was right to seek better relations between his department and the communities it serves. But the sudden spike in homicides soon after the VCIS was disbanded suggests that the units that replaced it have not been nearly as effective in getting violent criminals and illegal guns off the street.
Mr. Batts is right that police can't solve the problem alone. They need the cooperation of neighborhood residents, crime victims and witnesses and the support of prosecutors and elected officials to do their job. But he isn't going to get that cooperation by seeking to minimize the problem or marginalizing those who are affected by it. Clearly there are also internal issues with the department that are preventing it from executing the strategy that has worked so well in the past. Mr. Batts needs to stop trying to convince Baltimoreans not to care about the homicide rate and start finding ways to reduce it.
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