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Did outburst of killing put crime top-of-mind again as Baltimoreans vote? | COMMENTARY

Baltimore police commissioner Michael Harrison addresses reporters at a press conference Monday, May 25, to discuss violence over Memorial Day weekend.
Baltimore police commissioner Michael Harrison addresses reporters at a press conference Monday, May 25, to discuss violence over Memorial Day weekend. (Christina Tkacik)

Note to Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison: We know that most homicides in this city are not random. So thank you for the reassurance you tried to issue Monday afternoon — that the nine holiday weekend killings were “not random” — but that did little to reassure anyone.

Reassure us of what? That we won’t be shot unless we’re involved in the drug trade or dis someone who carries a gun? That, unless we’re engaged in some risky behavior, we probably won’t end up at the medical examiner’s office?

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We know that already. Previous commissioners tried to reassure us of this dark truth by mentioning the common prevalence of previous criminality among victims and suspects alike.

Certainly there have been cases of mistaken identity, and numerous innocent bystanders have been shot. But, generally speaking, most shootings are not random. Many are retaliatory. Some involve robberies. Some stem from acts of disrespect or arguments over nonsense. A very small percentage of Baltimoreans make this city stupidly violent.

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We know that Baltimoreans who remain stuck inside the circles of risk — or unwilling to leave them — are most likely to be victims of violence.

But there’s no reassurance in knowing all of that for residents and taxpayers. No one I know feels the city is changing. Most of us are still scratching our heads, wondering why all this killing continues. People appreciate the progress police have made since the start of the year in reducing gun crimes. Most of the people I talk to across the city understand that the police department is still understaffed. “There’s not enough police presence” is something I’ve heard from poor, middle class and affluent Baltimoreans.

So, until we see the numbers change — an improvement in police retention, a sustained drop in homicides and shootings, and a decrease in costly lawsuits against police — city dwellers will not be reassured.

Still, most of us support Harrison and want to see him succeed; the commissioner faces large and complex problems that are going to take a lot more time to solve, and the next mayor needs to fully support him.

Crime and the mayor’s race

Ballots have finally been received and city residents have started voting for the next mayor. Based on the last poll we published, the fight for that job is between Sheila Dixon and Mary Miller, with City Council President Brandon Scott, who received The Baltimore Sun’s endorsement, close behind.

I wonder, if not for the coronavirus being the mother of all distractions, whether the anti-crime candidates, Thiru Vignarajah and T.J. Smith, would be doing better among voters. All candidates claim to be anti-crime, but Vignarajah, a former prosecutor, got out early on that issue and hit it hard. Smith, who devoted his career to law enforcement, wants to stop the bleeding, too.

Just a few months ago, crime was the top issue. Now, even with the homicides continuing — nine dead over Memorial Day weekend, another early Tuesday — crime seems secondary to the deadly virus and the economic hardship it has caused. The next mayor will have to lead a rebuilding of the city’s economy, and it’s no exaggeration to compare the challenge to what Mayor Robert McLane faced after the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904. And yet, the crime remains; it will be there after the restaurants, colleges and office buildings reopen.

But is it top-of-mind for voters right now? Will senior Baltimoreans vote to bring back a previous mayor (Dixon) while younger progressives move toward one of their own (Scott), or will people who are generally sick of the status quo and worried about economic recovery opt for someone new (Miller). Could the Memorial Day weekend shootings remind city voters about their top concern before COVID-19, and move them back to Vignarajah or even Smith?

This primary election, with six major Democratic candidates, including the current mayor, Jack Young, is certainly the most intriguing I’ve seen, going back to the early 1980s. And the dynamics were interesting before the virus forced debates online and ballots by mail. Sorting out the why of the winner in this important Baltimore primary will present yet another challenge of the pandemic.

Follow-up on Eraina Pretty

Allow me to repeat a declaration: Advocacy in this column for older Maryland inmates long overdue for parole in no way excuses their crimes.

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Some readers have written to say, often with profanity, that people who have committed crimes of violence should remain in prison forever even if they are eligible for parole and have been incarcerated for three or four decades. To those readers, I say: Lobby the Maryland General Assembly to eliminate parole. If you feel a life sentence should mean life in prison, then appeal to the people who can change our laws.

In the meantime, I’ll argue that it’s wrong to accord inmates the right to parole, then deny them that right after they have been recommended for release from prison by the Maryland Parole Commission.

As I reported in this space a few weeks ago, Eraina Perry was convicted of involvement in a Baltimore murder in 1978. She has been in prison ever since — 42 years, making her the longest-incarcerated woman in Maryland.

Pretty, now 60, has twice been recommended for parole. And twice, Maryland governors — first Martin O’Malley, then his successor, Larry Hogan — rejected those recommendations. Maryland is only one of three states that allow their governors to do that.

Pretty recently was hospitalized for the coronavirus. She has been sent back to the women’s prison in Jessup.

Last week, 55 members of the House of Delegates wrote to Hogan to urge him to commute Pretty’s sentence and release her — first to a halfway house, then to her daughter’s home. “Even if Ms. Pretty fully recovers from COVID-19,” the letter said, “she will continue to be at risk in the correctional environment given her age and pre-existing conditions.”

We await response from the governor.

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