The most recent FBI crime statistics put Baltimore perilously close to the city's least-favorite superlative: deadliest big city in America. With 276 murders last year, Baltimore ranked second to Detroit in homicides per capita. It's a distinction the city has been trying to shake since the 1990s, when it recorded more than 300 murders a year. It's a negative that undermines Baltimore's many positives as a diverse, livable, affordable charm of a city.
The body count conveys an image of Baltimore as extremely violent, but what many in and outside the city don't realize is that the city's killers, for the most part, discriminate. They stick to their own kind - others involved in crime, drugs or violence - and what the murder statistics show clearly is that a life of crime can lead to a one-way trip to the morgue. The corollary is naively elemental: Staying out of trouble, steering clear of the drug trade and its prime-time players, can save your life. In fact, statistically speaking, most people in the city are not at risk, and here's why:
As of Friday, 131 people had been killed. A review of those cases reveals that 89.1 percent of the victims had criminal records, 82 percent had been arrested on drug charges, 66.4 percent for violent crimes and 28.9 percent for gun crimes.
The murder suspects arrested so far this year are more steeped in crime: 97.9 percent had criminal records, 77.1 percent had been arrested for drugs, 66.7 percent for violent crimes and 45.8 percent for gun crimes. And more than a third of the victims and suspects were on probation at the time of the murder. That alone suggests a need to better monitor probationers.
The statistical portrait of the city's murder victims and suspects shouldn't lead anyone to think that there aren't truly innocent victims in Baltimore who have been caught in the crossfire or senselessly brutalized. There certainly are: Shirley Cooper, a 72-year-old grandmother, was fatally stabbed in her Reservoir Hill home last weekend, and Marcus McDowell, a 16-year-old with plans to attend a community college, was repeatedly shot Jan. 8 while trying to help a friend during a street robbery.
The who's who of homicide in this city also doesn't mean police efforts to reduce the rate should be any less urgent. On the contrary, it suggests that the criminal justice system isn't doing enough to lock up criminals once they've been arrested and convicted and that there are too few jobs and programs for those coming out of prison to help keep them from reoffending. The pool of recycled offenders is too deep, and yet it's no secret how to stay alive and out of the deep end: Don't wade in.