What it will take to make Baltimore safe

The 300 Man March, Baltimore's latest effort to rally against the worsening toll of killings that has hit the city this summer, turns out to have been inaptly named. Significantly more people than that are reported to have shown up — twice that many, by some estimates. They were people who are fed up with their communities being defined, their lives being dictated, by those who trade in violence and intimidation. It is widely known here that no matter how high Baltimore may climb on the list of America's most dangerous cities, that danger is largely confined to a handful of neighborhoods. But it is also true that within those neighborhoods, the mayhem that grips the city is perpetrated by a relative few who thrive on the fear or indifference of a silent majority. The point of the 300 Man March and events like it is to get that majority to be a lot less silent. That's the only way Baltimore is ever going to be as safe as it deserves to be.

When violence creeps up in Baltimore, we tend to look for easy culprits. Has the new police commissioner changed the department's strategy in some subtle way, or is the execution of that strategy not as strong as it once was? Is there a turf war going on in the city's drug trade that will burn itself out? Is the state's attorney failing to prosecute enough murder cases, as former Sun police reporter David Simon contends?

Any of those things may play a role, or they may not, but what we can't lose sight of is the fact that the crime spike that has our attention — more than 40 shootings and 15 killings in the last 10 days of June — represents a depressingly small variation from what we have come to accept as the norm. No question, it was a tremendous achievement for the city to drop from the 300-plus murders per year era of the 1990s to the sub-200 homicide year Baltimore experienced in 2011. And we should be concerned about the evident backsliding in the last two years. But 200 murders in a year isn't good news either.

Other cities have seen radical drops in the murder rate since the crack epidemic. Why not Baltimore? It's not that our police department is under-staffed relative to other places. Far from it. Baltimore has a high poverty rate, to be sure, but it is nowhere near the nation's worst. Drug abuse in the Baltimore metropolitan area (and it is important to remember that the drug trade is hardly limited to the city) is actually at or slightly below the national average, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Among the 33 largest metro areas in the nation, Baltimore ranks 22nd in the percentage of people aged 12 and over who have used illicit drugs in the past year.

There is no easy or obvious reason why Baltimore should be deadlier than Washington, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh or Cleveland. But for some reason, we have come to believe that it is immutable fact that Baltimore is a violent place. At some level, that belief has become self-perpetuating as the community expects, accepts and, in good years, even cheers a level of violence that would horrify other cities. Chicago faced a crisis in 2012 when the number of homicides there soared past 500, but that is a rate of violence that would make Baltimore leaders ecstatic; given the population differential, it would be the equivalent of Baltimore recording about 116 killings in a year.

No doubt, Baltimore needs effective police and prosecutors, ample drug treatment, better schools and more economic opportunity. But it also needs to change a culture that takes violence for granted. Gov. Martin O'Malley's tenure as mayor is often associated with aggressive police tactics, an attempt to meet force with force. But he also spearheaded the Believe campaign and its call for every segment of the city to band together to create a better future. That same spirit animates those who marched down North Avenue on Friday, or the hundreds who have been joining City Councilman Nick Mosby in his "Enough is Enough" rallies this summer. Cynics will dismiss such efforts as insignificant and bound to fail. We disagree. Indeed, Baltimore cannot possibly succeed without them.

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