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A data dive on Baltimore homicides shows the need to stop retaliatory violence | COMMENTARY

Police investigate a crime scene outside of an apartment in northeast Baltimore.
Police investigate a crime scene outside of an apartment in northeast Baltimore. (Ulysses Muñoz)

After he sent me another pile of data about violent crime — specifically, an analysis of the Baltimore Police Department’s performance in making arrests in homicides — I wondered why Thiru Vignarajah, former candidate for mayor and Baltimore State’s Attorney, keeps doing this.

To get on Fox 45 again? To stay viable as a political candidate for some future office? Why go to the trouble of looking at four years of violent crimes and arrests? That’s heavy work for a private citizen.

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“If only 22% of 335 murders [in 2020] resulted in an arrest, [then] eight out of 10 killers in Baltimore City are under the impression they can get away with murder, and they’re right,” he says. “They’re walking the streets having killed someone, and 80% of the time they’re not even being arrested.”

Let me quickly point out that the BPD reported a 2020 homicide clearance rate of 40.3%, nearly twice as high. (I’ll explain the difference between Vignarajah’s calculation and the official one in a minute.)

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This is not the first time Vignarajah did a data dive and came up with a clearance rate lower than the BPD’s. He ran a similar analysis last year as a crime-focused candidate for mayor. Vignarajah is a former federal prosecutor, former prosecutor of major crimes in the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office and former deputy attorney general of Maryland, but his campaign did not gain traction. He finished fourth in the Democratic mayoral primary in June. In 2018, he finished third in the Democratic primary for state’s attorney.

Through this time, he’s built a law career as a litigation partner at DLA Piper. He remains an engaged citizen and expresses frustration with the pace of progress against violent crime in Baltimore. I’ve heard plenty of reasons why he didn’t fare better in two elections, but no one ever listed “lack of earnestness” as an explanation.

So back to the data.

Vignarajah says Baltimoreans need to know what he calls the “actual” clearance rate — how many arrests BPD detectives make for homicides in a given year. That calculation, he says, should not include what the FBI calls “cleared by exceptional means,” or cleared because the main suspect in a homicide was also killed. In 2018, The Sun reported that “exceptional clearances” had become more common — not surprising in a city where retaliation is practically a contagion, violence begetting violence.

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In addition to a suspect’s death, the FBI suggests other possible reasons for such a clearance: The victim refuses to cooperate with police, for instance, or the lead suspect ends up charged with another felony in a different jurisdiction. Whatever the reason, Vignarajah does not believe “exceptional clearances” should be included in the homicide clearance rate that the BPD reports to citizens.

“If,” he says, “the number [of clearances] is going up only because last year’s suspects are being killed this year, not because they are being arrested, I think that’s a very different indicator of how well our city is doing.”

I found this aspect of Vignarajah’s data dive revealing and affirming of what I’ve heard from experts in the past: The quicker Baltimore police can make arrests and Safe Street interrupters can act to stop retaliatory violence, the sooner Baltimore will see some real progress in stemming homicides and nonfatal shootings.

Back to Vignarajah’s calculation.

In addition to “exceptional clearances,” he eliminates arrests made in homicides from previous years, though that doesn’t make as much sense to me. If detectives arrest someone in February for a homicide committed the previous December, that should count. But, in Vignarajah’s mind, it should count only toward the year in which the crime was committed. That makes the accounting pretty complicated, but he seems to think it will give the public a clearer picture.

Vignarajah looked at outcomes in 1,336 homicides from 2017 through 2020. The official clearance rates for those years have been reported as 51% (2017), 43% (2018), 32% (2019), and 40% (2020). The way Vignarajah calculates it — without “exceptional clearances” and without arrests in homicides from previous years — the clearance rate for each of those years was much lower. “Less than a quarter [24%] of all 1,336 murders from the beginning of 2017 through the end of 2020 resulted in an arrest,” Vignarajah says.

Vignarajah recognizes that the BPD is just following the FBI’s reporting standards. But he’s putting this analysis out here because, in addition to believing it more precise, he thinks it shows that police really need community help and trust to build better cases and that the BPD probably needs more detectives to keep up with the pace of shootings.

You might disagree with his calculations, but not those conclusions.

Vignarajah’s latest analysis comes as Baltimore police report a string of arrests in recent homicides. It’s clear to me and some colleagues that the department is making more of a push to report homicide arrests to the public through the news media. Daily press releases from the BPD more often include reports of arrests, along with mug shots of suspects, in addition to the litany of shootings and killings. If city detectives are doing a better job at catching up with killers, and doing so quickly after a homicide, that’s a good thing. That means they might finally cut into the long, dreary cycle of killing and retaliation that has wasted so many lives and worn this city down.

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