At exactly what point should the number of homicides in a city make your jaw drop?
It depends on where you are. In Newark, N.J., that number appears to be 60. When four college students were shot - three fatally - in a schoolyard Aug. 4, Newark residents figured that was the straw that broke the camel's back. Within days of the crime, disgruntled Newark residents gathered outside City Hall and demanded Mayor Cory Booker's resignation.
In Baltimore, we didn't get outraged until the number of homicides hit 178, and only then because we feared that, at 178, we were drifting back toward the dreaded three-oh-oh in the number of killings for one year. No one has demanded that Mayor Sheila Dixon resign because of the soaring number of homicides, although former Police Commissioner Leonard Hamm did get the ax.
It can be argued, with some justification, that it was the nature of the killings in Newark that sparked the outrage, not the number. Natasha Aeriel and Dashon Harvey attended Delaware State University. Terrance Aeriel, Natasha Aeriel's younger brother, and Iofemi Hightower had been accepted to Delaware State and were to start classes this fall.
Terrance Aeriel, Harvey and Hightower were killed. Natasha Aeriel survived her wounds, gave police details about the crime and identified at least one of the suspects.
Terrance Aeriel was an ordained minister; Hightower worked for two years to raise money to attend Delaware State; Natasha Aeriel played in the university band; and Harvey was elected "Mr. Junior" during homecoming festivities. When four college students with no criminal records are shot in a schoolyard for no other reason than being there, that's sure to rile a lot of people.
But Booker was taking heat for Newark's homicides before Aug. 4. News reports indicate that Newark residents were just as angry about the July killing - in broad daylight - of security guard Nestor De La Rosa, who was shot in a robbery attempt. And Baltimore has experienced homicides that appear just as senseless and random as those of Aeriel, Hightower and Harvey in Newark.
Remember Nicole Edmonds? Only 17 years old, Nicole was heading home with her brother from their part-time jobs at a Wendy's restaurant in Anne Arundel County. They had gotten off the light rail at a stop at North Avenue when they were attacked. Nicole was fatally stabbed, and her cell phone stolen.
Jerrod Hamlett met his death at the hands of a then-13-year-old boy whom he chided for hitting him in the foot with a bottle. Bryant C. Jones caught a fatal bullet for daring to tell a 16-year-old boy to act with decorum at his daughter's "Sweet 16" birthday party. Eleven-year-old Irvin J. Harris was fatally stabbed a little more than a year ago. The man accused in his death is a convicted child molester.
Baltimoreans expressed just as much shock, just as much outrage, about all of these deaths as Newark residents have about the deaths of Terrance Aeriel, Hightower and Harvey. But that still leaves the nagging question: Why do residents of Newark get outraged at a lower number of homicides than Baltimoreans do?
It's not just Newark. I've been known to get around a bit. I've attended conferences and conventions with columnists and reporters from other cities who tell me citizens in their towns are really upset about the high number of homicides. I usually ask how many people have been killed in their hometowns that year.
Eighty or 90 is the answer I usually get. It's at that point that my jaw drops.
Eighty? Ninety? That's only about one-third of Baltimore's total for a year. Are we really so comfortable with an annual homicide number in the 250 to 270 range that we think 300 or over would make us really extra dangerous?
Here's a more sobering thought, one that many of us may be thinking, but few of us would dare say out loud: Is it who is being killed on Baltimore's streets that makes us so accepting of homicide numbers that people in other cities find appalling?
We know the demographics of homicide in Baltimore by now. The victims and perps are usually young black men with criminal records. Is there a feeling - an acceptance - that somehow street justice is catching up with these young men before court justice does?
Street justice Baltimore-style is brutal, cold, remorseless, relentless and oh-so-final. Those choosing to engage in the chess match of Baltimore street crime pretty much know how that end game is going to be played.
So our jaws don't drop when the number hits 60. They don't drop when the number reaches 80 or 90. But let the number drift toward the dreaded three-oh-oh too quickly, and we're sure to get concerned.
How many killings would there be in Baltimore if our jaws did drop when the number hit 60?