University of Baltimore president Kurt L. Schmoke condemned the city's "subculture of violence" on Sunday and reiterated his call for the decriminalization of marijuana and an increase in employment opportunities, as the city's annual homicide total hit 300 for the first time since he was mayor in the 1990s.
Speaking on a panel on WMAR's "Square Off" talk show with Richard Sher, the former mayor called the mounting death toll an "absolute tragedy" and said the community must take a stand against the violence to stop it.
"It is a subculture of violence — of guys who'd rather shoot first and ask questions later," said Schmoke, who was mayor from 1987 to 1999. "So, yes, there's a law enforcement component to this too, but there's a whole community culture aspect of it."
Baltimore must sap the money out of its thriving drug trade and give witnesses confidence they'll be protected if they come forward, Schmoke added.
"That's why I talked about decriminalization," he said. "But it's more. It's got to go to the gun violence culture, trust [between] the community [and] the police, this whole 'stop-snitching' business — where people are afraid to even give information to the police. It's a combination of things, but at the heart of it, getting the profit out of drugs is important."
As mayor, Schmoke argued for the decriminalization of marijuana, but the laws in Maryland and at the federal level did not change. More recently, the state legislature has cleared the way for medical marijuana and has scaled back criminal penalties for recreational use.
Liz Copeland, a political commentator who also was on the panel, noted the police homicide unit's low rate of solving killings in 2015. Fewer than a third of the year's homicides have been closed; if that trend continues, the clearance rate would be among the lowest on record.
"People don't think the police are able to do their jobs," she said.
Copeland said she supports decriminalization of marijuana but worries that the drugs being sold on the streets today are more potent and have "a lot more artificial chemistry" than in the 1960s and '70s.
"As a parent, I don't want my children to feel that they should have access to drugs," she said.
Schmoke responded that, regardless of what's legal and what isn't, education and parental guidance are paramount in keeping children away from addiction and on the right track.
"A lot of our kids don't go out and drink gin, for example, which is legal," he said. "But through public education, parental guidance, and things of that nature, we're able to try to reduce level of alcohol consumption among young people."
Drugs should be considered a public health issue, Schmoke said, adding that he's been riled to see presidential candidates now addressing the heroin epidemic, which has long affected urban blacks but has exploded recently among the nation's white, suburban population.
"I still think that it is a big problem that people view the drug problem as different for communities of color than they do of whites," Schmoke said. "I've heard people talk about the fact that heroin is now hitting 'regular people.'
"And so we've got to change the focus. If we viewed the drug problem, all the drug problem, as a public health problem, I think it would help a great deal."
Schmoke applauded Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and the City Council for installing Kevin Davis as police commissioner and ending his interim status. That move "gives some stability and allows [Davis] to start building a really good police force," Schmoke said.
He said he hopes to see Baltimore's businesses step up efforts to hire city residents, as they did in the months after the unrest over the death of Freddie Gray.
Gray, 25, died in April after sustaining a severe spine injury in police custody. His death led to protests that erupted into riots; in the aftermath, a citywide curfew was declared and the National Guard was deployed to quell the violence.
Corporations "having not only a commitment to summer jobs but permanent jobs," Schmoke said, would "increase employment in Baltimore — that'd make a big difference."
The show can be seen on squareoff.net.