Baltimore police and prosecutors know how to cut crime, do politicians?

Recent FBI data show that Baltimore has the worst homicide rate in the nation, and the second highest violent crime rate, yet we shouldn’t worry, counsels Mayor Catherine Pugh.

She says that “she has been attempting to curb the killings by attacking the root causes of poverty and lack of opportunity that fuel the violent drug trade” and that she believes “one murder in Baltimore is one murder too many.”

Excuse me, but we have been “attacking the root causes of poverty and lack of opportunity” since John Kennedy was president. I wonder why Ms. Pugh thinks lip service to this tired cliché and stubborn loyalty to an exhausted strategy will now produce different results. That “one murder … is one murder too many” statement suggests she is much better focused on saying the right thing than doing it. No one is expecting her to bring murders down to zero — particularly not on her current course.

Ms. Pugh is on her third police commissioner in less than two years, with another on the near horizon. Any mayor of this town, present or prospective, and any police commissioner who may be hired must pay the closest attention to the facts of Baltimore murder, not the cliches.

Homicide here is by and large defined as young black men shooting other young black men, often in turf vendettas over gang control of the local drug bazaar. Bystanders — occasionally children — are sometimes caught in the crossfire, and some gang initiations require an assault, a robbery or the murder of a similarly innocent victim.

Most of our city’s young black men who grow up in poverty and with apparently limited prospects do not choose criminal paths. Some of those who do are redirected before they progress to murder. Yes, there really are police and prosecutors who can tell the difference between a kid who needs help and a juvenile psychopath.

But I believe it is the psychopath who predominates among our killers.

He thrives in a milieu where the police are never to be trusted; where anyone who comes forward to testify is a contemptible snitch, with a good chance of being killed for it; and where juries will not convict an accused killer unless the forensic evidence — DNA, fingerprints, the gun, the videotape — is overwhelming. Where the appointed authorities, the police and the courts, fail to get justice, redress is privately sought. Thus any given murder too often produces another murder, in retaliation, which may lead to another round of retaliation.

My point is that the usual suspects — poverty and the lack of career opportunity — are innocent. Our real killers are anything but hopeless. They are bold, confident and career-minded.

There are ways to bring them down. Any real prosecutor knows how. Roughly, you identify the truly dangerous men in a given neighborhood. They aren’t hiding. They’re the ones with a prior record, juvenile and adult, of guns, violence and drug dealing. You then deploy every legitimate tool in the investigator’s quiver — wiretaps, informants, undercover cops, criminal enterprise statutes, laws against gang affiliation, instant arrest for parole and probation violations — to build solid cases that will hold up in court. To have a real impact on the murder rate, we need to replicate this strategy in at least half a dozen of the city’s most violent neighborhoods.

When we read about a crew that is taking plea deals rather than going to trial, we know that prosecutors and police have done their jobs. It remains for our politicians to undergo a reality check and do theirs.

Hal Riedel (haroldriedl@gmail.com) retired from the Division of Correction and the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office. He is the author of “The Topless Gospel Choir,” available on Amazon Kindle.

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