Baltimore’s worst-ever per capita homicide rate, the 56 killed per 100,000 people recorded last year, made it the most violent city in America, according to new FBI statistics. Given how many people are trying every day to make this city a safer place, that’s dispiriting. But the situation in Baltimore is actually worse than that. Just six years before, Baltimore recorded its lowest number of homicides in a generation — 197. If we had achieved that level again last year, Baltimore would still have been the second deadliest city in the country, behind Detroit but ahead of cities including Chicago, where the recent violence has shocked the nation.
Whether at a high point or low, the pace of killing here remains far outside the norm in almost any other place in the country. There is no simple answer to this problem, but that isn’t to say we don’t know how to solve it. We do. Other cities have done it, and so can we — provided we understand that we face a generational challenge that will require a generational response. The ingredients of it are already here; we just need to sustain them.
We have been critical at times of Mayor Catherine Pugh’s handling of Baltimore’s crime, as we were of her predecessors. But she has articulated an important truth about the city’s violence, that it is rooted in the deep socio-economic problems in many Baltimore neighborhoods, and she has used that understanding to guide her policies. Of course, mobile job vans, more streetlights, daily meetings between agency heads and the police department, and intensive city services in high-crime neighborhoods — from pothole repair to alley cleaning — aren’t a panacea. They can be expanded. They can be improved. But the philosophy behind them is one that we can’t abandon next year or in the next decade.
Within the next month or so, Baltimore will announce its next police commissioner. The task he or she faces is daunting, but the mission is clear: Create a new paradigm of effective, constitutional policing; eliminate corruption within the ranks; foster a culture of pride and confidence among officers; increase transparency and public accountability; and develop an ongoing relationship of trust with all Baltimore communities. This next commissioner will operate under the city’s consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice and the monitoring that goes along with it, and he or she will need to be both an enthusiastic reformer and a skilled leader in the kinds of proactive policing that can help drive crime rates down. It can’t be either-or.
The state government can play an important role in helping reduce Baltimore’s violence, and we know how. Closer supervision of high-risk parolees and probationers, coordinated warrant sweeps, the strategic use of state police to free up city officers and investments in anti-violence programs have worked before, and they will work again. Both Gov. Larry Hogan and his challenger, Ben Jealous, support those ideas. Whoever wins needs to be held accountable for executing them consistently and in close coordination with city officials. Meanwhile, Maryland’s Justice Reinvestment Act is already showing progress in reducing the state’s prison population. The next governor needs to use the savings to aggressively invest in violence prevention and re-entry initiatives — and to consider ideas to produce even bigger impacts that the legislature shied away from two years ago.
The city school system needs to continue its work to raise academic standards and provide better pathways to college or a career, but it also needs to follow through on CEO Sonja Santelises’ ideas about responding to the trauma many city schoolchildren have experienced and the challenges they face at home. Our schools need to be sanctuaries.
Businesses need to give ex-offenders meaningful chances for employment and advancement. Banks need to seek out opportunities to back inner city entrepreneurs and redevelopment projects. Suburbanites need to embrace and support the city that is the lifeblood of the region. The media need to provide accountability but also to tell stories of hope. And we all need to join in the spirit that has animated the Cease Fire movement by holding onto the belief that the deadly culture of violence and retaliation can change.
We can do better. We know the long and difficult path it will take. Cynicism will not lead us down it; only faith and perseverance will.
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