As the year 2015 opened, hardly anyone could have predicted that, within a few months, homicides in Baltimore City would soar to record levels — and remain there for years. Yet that’s where we again find ourselves today. For the third straight time in as many years, the city is all but certain to register more than 300 homicides, a frightful level of carnage not seen since the 1990s. And what did we get in the week when we lurched inexorably toward that horrific milestone? A pointless squabble between the mayor and the chairman of the City Council’s public safety committee about whether the administration would show up at a hastily called meeting on Halloween.
People are frustrated, scared, fed up, heartbroken. Three years in, the accelerated pace of killings is becoming the new normal, and any hope that a new police deployment strategy or shake-up of the criminal justice system will reverse it has long since faded. Councilman Brandon Scott decried the mayor for failing to drop everything to brief his committee on her plans to stop the killing; Mayor Pugh effectively accused him of posturing rather than seeking productive dialogue. But the people who showed up demanding answers didn’t care about that. They just want the killing to stop, and no matter how urgently the city’s leaders say they are taking the situation, it isn’t enough.
We are at a deadly crossroads. The tough-on-crime tactics that accompanied Baltimore’s last drop below 300 yearly homicides are now recognized by nearly everyone as having come at an unsupportable cost. Clearing corners swept up the innocent and the guilty, drove a wedge between the community and the police and further diminished the already precarious economic prospects of thousands of residents of Baltimore’s poorest neighborhoods. We should not go down that path again. The alternative we are being offered — a difficult reform process for the police department and a holistic effort to improve the economic, educational and health prospects for Baltimore’s residents — may well be the necessary answer, but it isn’t quick acting. Must we lose a generation to violence while the painstaking process of undoing past sins — police brutality, segregation and economic apartheid — slowly takes effect?
We cannot let our elected leaders off the hook. There is more that can be done, whether it’s expanding proven programs like Safe Streets or exercising the political will to take off the table for collective bargaining the police department’s disastrous shift schedule.
But the public has a role to play, too. The most heartening thing we’ve seen is the return of the grassroots-led Baltimore Ceasefire. The last one, in August, may not have succeeded in preventing anyone from being killed that weekend, and the one scheduled for this Friday through Sunday may not either. But the events kindle a sense that we are not powerless. The silent, no longer scared majority can, as organizer Erricka Bridgeford put it, turn “on the lights, little by little.” The deadly culture of violence and revenge that has gripped Baltimore for generations can’t be changed by new police tactics, only by the people of this city standing together to reject it. Ceasefire is about fostering the hope that it’s possible. Hope alone won’t stop the killing, but we will never stop the killing without it.
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