A hard truth about being Baltimore's mayor is that there is almost never a good time to declare progress. Whenever there is good news to report, it will almost inevitably collide with a fresh tragedy.
That's what happened to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake this week, when she pointed to the city's success in drawing crowds to a series of major public events downtown — despite warnings this spring from a pair of Baltimore County lawmakers that people should stay away in the wake of high-profile incidents of violence. Unfortunately, her remarks came a day after a National Institutes of Health researcher was killed in a seemingly random crime in a neighborhood not known for violence; a few weeks after 16 people were shot and six killed in one weekend; and at a time when homicides are slightly ahead of last year's pace.
For a mayor, there is a fine line between trumpeting the kind of genuine progress that makes Baltimore a more desirable place for people to live and appearing to stick your head in the sand to deny the fact that the city remains one of America's most violent. Ms. Rawlings-Blake's remarks strike an even more sensitive chord because they resurrect an old complaint about whether City Hall pays too much attention to tourist areas like the Inner Harbor and not enough to the neighborhoods where most Baltimoreans live. To wit: Those 16 people were shot at the same time that Baltimore police were keeping downtown safe for spectators of the Grand Prix.
It's worth remembering what prompted the mayor's comments. Reports this spring of a mass disturbance downtown on St. Patrick's Day — including a widely viewed video of a man getting beaten up near the courthouse — prompted Del. Patrick McDonough, a Republican who represents Baltimore and Harford counties, to warn of "roving mobs of black youth." He declared the Inner Harbor a "no-travel zone" and urged the governor to send out the National Guard. After other disturbing, if smaller, incidents, Sen. James Brochin, a Baltimore County Democrat, said the mayor should "do the right thing and call the governor, admit you're overwhelmed and ask for help."
In fact, hundreds of thousands of people from throughout the region did go downtown this summer — for Artscape, Sailabration and the Grand Prix, among other events — all without a major incident. That didn't happen by accident. The Baltimore police made a targeted redeployment of officers and conducted sweeps — as they typically do in the summer — to make sure that the youth violence of the spring didn't continue.
The police can't ignore the rest of the city just to keep the Inner Harbor safe — and they didn't — but it's also a fallacy to claim there is no connection between what happens in the neighborhoods and what happens downtown, as some of the mayor's recent critics have done. Tourism is vitally important to the city's economy.
The mayor's decision to mention the success of this summer's big events is not a matter of her seeking credit or ignoring Baltimore's other problems but instead an attempt to counteract some very damaging negative publicity the city faced.
That said, every murder, shooting, robbery and assault in this city is a tragedy, and no matter how much crime has dropped under this mayor and her recent predecessors, it still takes a terrible toll. As Greater Baltimore Committee President Donald Fry astutely pointed out in a recent commentary, Baltimore's historic reductions in homicides in the last few years have allowed it to drop out of the top five deadliest American cities — to No. 6.
Ms. Rawlings-Blake's critics would be right to call her callous if she was denying that fact or pretending that crime in the neighborhoods beyond the Inner Harbor doesn't matter. But she isn't. The timing of her remarks this week may have raised eyebrows, but more important is the substance of her public safety policy. Her biggest decision so far in that regard has been to hire as police commissioner Anthony Batts, an officer with a reputation for building the ties between the police and the community that are necessary to effectively fight crime. His predecessor, Frederick H. Bealefeld III, made important strides in that direction, but the department needs to go further. If Mr. Batts can do that, no one will be able to question whether the mayor deserves to declare success.