A pandemic sped Baltimore’s push toward fewer arrests. It didn’t quell the murders, even if crime did slow in 2020.

A Baltimore police officer wears a protective mask after the fatal midday shooting of a 28-year-old man Dec. 21 in Brooklyn. The 333 murders so far this year is a reminder of how much stayed the same in the city, despite an overall drop in crime.

In a year defined by the coronavirus pandemic, Baltimore experienced steep drops in most crime categories, amid a plunging number of arrests and increases in pretrial and post-conviction detention releases.

Yet one of Baltimore’s signature problems — the high rate of killings and shootings — continued in 2020.


Are the 30% drops in categories such as robberies and property crimes a mirage, driven by lack of opportunities with more people indoors and working from home? Does the effort to all but eliminate arrests for lower-level offenses show that the city can continue not prosecuting such cases without an increase in crime?

Some local officials are heartened to see that fewer arrests have not produced a crime increase. But some neighborhood leaders expressed frustration with the level of crime and said they wanted more enforcement.


Police Commissioner Michael Harrison doesn’t see the crime reduction as a reason to celebrate, and is not looking to take credit for the almost 20% drop in reported violent crime. Baltimore still eclipsed 300 homicides for the sixth year in a row and recorded more than 1,000 total shootings. As of Monday evening, Baltimore had recorded 333 homicides this year.

“The decreases are attributed to fewer people being out, which means fewer opportunities and chances for victimization,” Harrison said in an interview. Noting that the number of guns recovered by police is up 9%, he said: “The bad actors who commit crime are still there, because the level of shootings and murders remain notoriously high. Even compared to other cities.”

Police are on track to arrest about 15,000 people — a far cry from 15 years ago when a zero-tolerance crime strategy that in one year led to more than 100,000 people being arrested. Even with all those arrests, the city averaged about 275 murders a year between 2003 and 2007.

The number of arrests has been dropping for years, but the fall accelerated in the spring when State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby said her office would stop prosecuting lower-level offenses in an effort to reduce the number of people who could be exposed to COVID-19 at the city jail.

The drop in arrests includes an 80% decline in misdemeanor drug arrests. Police statistics show fewer than five people were arrested per day across the city for felony or misdemeanor drug possession.

The statistics show that locking up people for drugs and minor crimes doesn’t make the streets any safer, Mosby said.

“We stopped prosecuting marijuana for the past two years. Has that been an attributable factor in the homicide rate? Absolutely not. The fact that we stopped prosecuting drug possession in March; has that been an attributable factor in violent crime? No,” she said.

Mosby has heard from critics who think the drug-possession policy emboldens criminals. But she says such claims aren’t supported by the statistics. Further, she said, the policy aims to right injustice, not stop the shootings.


She credits stability within the police department for any slight improvement in street crime during 2020. Baltimore has had five police commissioners in five years; Harrison begins his third year this March.

“This is more attributable to the police department than anything else,” Mosby said. “We have the same police commissioner. We have the same command staff. We have the same policing strategy.”

Still, some community leaders and anti-violence workers in Baltimore wonder if there’s too little enforcement to make those who would commit crimes fear the consequences.

James Timpson, who has worked with Safe Streets “violence interrupters” program and currently is director of the youth violent prevention program Roca, said “long-term behavioral intervention” — changing mindsets — is key, and that government corruption, poverty and systemic racism will always result in high levels of violence.

James "J.T." Timpson, right, of anti-violence group Roca, said the city's progressive new approach to many crimes has caused some criminals to be less worried about consequences.

In the short term, he said, people are realizing that they are less likely to be stopped or arrested or, if they are arrested, detained.

“They really don’t fear the repercussions of their actions right now,” Timpson said.


People are tired of coming home, driving through the community or walking through the community, and you’ve got to walk around these guys selling drugs on the corner.”

—  Joyce Green, neighborhood organizer

Following the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minnesota, as well as the fatal police shooting of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, discussion of reform or defunding police gained traction this year. Even those who resist defunding law enforcement could find that COVID-related budget problems are forcing the issue.

At the same time, communities across the country are grappling with surging homicides.

Baltimore did not, although the reasons are not entirely clear. The city had already seen an increase in 2015, when violence spiked to an elevated level that continues to hold steady.

Saint Louis experienced a big jump after the shooting death by police of Michael Brown in 2014. Unlike Baltimore, it still saw a surge in killings this year.

Homicides in Minneapolis were up 50%, and more than 500 people have been shot, the highest number in more than a decade and more than twice as many as in 2019. St. Louis, the only large city with a higher per capita homicide rate than Baltimore, set a record, topping the number from 1993. Kansas City, Louisville and Cincinnati set records as well.

In Los Angeles, homicides were up 30%, the most in more than a decade, while shootings were up 34%. New York City saw its biggest year-over-year percentage increase in gun violence, though it remains historically low.


“So, scientifically I don’t know I can say we should go back to making those arrests. ... If this was an experiment, you’d have to go with the data.”

—  Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison

Homicides are up 39% in Philadelphia, double the total from 2013, following six consecutive years of increases. A reform prosecutor, former defense attorney Larry Krasner, was elected in 2018, and has been attacked by the Republican U.S. attorney there, who says the crime spikes are proof that his approach is not working.

Krasner, in an interview with The Baltimore Sun, said reform and public safety go hand-in-hand and that it’s a “conservative fear tactic” to say a choice must be made between constitutional rights and safety.

“The reliance on acting like an occupying army is the reason I can’t get any damn witnesses on my shooting cases,” Krasner said. “When you don’t have people trusting and engaging, they take matters into their own hands, won’t report crimes committed against themselves, and they settle it on the streets.”

Outgoing Washington, D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham said today’s police commissioners don’t support mass incarceration, and said he doesn’t believe reforms are holding back effective policing.

“But you do have to incarcerate violent offenders,” Newsham told The Sun. “I think people are not drawing enough of a bright line between nonviolent and violent offenders. Violent offenders have to be treated differently, and if you’re not going to do that, you’re going to have this increase in shootings.”

Some Baltimore residents like Joyce Green, a neighborhood organizer and president of the Central District Police Community Relations Council, feel the pendulum has shifted too far with police not taking enough action.


“We hear it all the time that people want their corners cleared off,” Green said. “People are tired of coming home, driving through the community or walking through the community, and you’ve got to walk around these guys selling drugs on the corner.”

Harrison says he continues to get “complaints on top of complaints, ongoing and never stopping, in every neighborhood of the city” about open-air drug dealing. He noted police continue to work to dismantle drug organizations. And Mosby’s office continues to prosecute cases of drug distribution.

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So have federal prosecutors. Southwest Baltimore was the setting for a series of large federal takedowns this year, and the Southwestern police district has recorded 60 homicides, the most of the city’s nine districts.

Ardelia Huntley-Wilson, the president of the Southwest Baltimore Police Community Relations Council, said the crime fight is hobbled by the culture of “stop snitching.” Huntley-Wilson wants to see drug dealers and users not enabled or locked up, but sent away to rehab. She credits Mosby with working to redress the disproportionate number of Black men locked up in Baltimore compared with whites.

In Northwest Baltimore, Sean Stinnett, the president of the West Arlington Improvement Association, said more attention to prostitution and related crime is needed, asserting that the problems along Garrison Boulevard has worsened.

“She [Mosby] needs to get back to prosecuting these crimes. I understand that we can’t arrest our way out of this situation. However, when individuals do get prosecuted at least there are some [social] services,” said Stinnett, who also leads the Police Community Relations Council for Northeast Baltimore. “It’s more of a free-for-all right now.”


City Councilman Mark Conway, who represents North Baltimore and was appointed to lead the council’s public safety committee, said arrests can only do so much. “The arrest doesn’t do anything necessarily except for a short period of time take people off the streets,” Conway said. “A lot of the work we need to do is rebuilding communities.”

Harrison seemed to hedge when asked whether he believes the policies away from low-level arrests should continue, saying he had to separate his views as a chief from looking at the question from a criminologist’s perspective.

“We made the adjustment to stop making [such] arrests, and crime went down. The data supports that the arrests were not [linked] to crime reduction,” Harrison said. “So, scientifically I don’t know I can say we should go back to making those arrests. … If this was an experiment, you’d have to go with the data.”