When the homicide numbers are as high as they are in Baltimore, it’s no surprise when public officials try to explain them away.
One way is to blame the victims. And that is precisely what the city’s police department seemed to be doing when announcing earlier this week that Baltimore had logged a devastating 309 killings in 2017. The department’s press team sent an e-mail noticeably packed with statistics about the backgrounds of those who had been killed. And it didn’t paint them in a flattering light.
Homicide victims with previous arrest records accounted for 83.8 percent of the deaths. Those with previous gun crime arrests made up 48.5 percent of those killed, while 24.9 percent were on parole or probation. Homicide victims who had been previously shot in a non-fatal shooting were 19.4 percent of the total. And, of course, the same goes for those accused of committing the murders. Homicide suspects with previous arrest records represented 85.6 percent of all suspects. Homicide suspects with previous gun crime arrests made up 44.4 percent, and those suspects on parole or probation at the time of the incident: 30 percent.
We get it, bad people killing bad people, right? It’s not the first time someone has made this argument, and it’s not getting any better with repetition. We’re being asked to believe that because most of the killings were of people with a criminal history by people with a criminal history, they mattered less. Or that the crime problem isn't so bad because of it who it involved. At the very least, the department seems to be assigning some blame to the victims rather than assessing its own inability to bring the violence under control. (Also high in their messaging was that 13 of the incidents happened in previous years, but were added to the count because the people died in 2018. Of course, this is true to one degree or another every year.)
The numbers don’t necessarily tell the entire story. Sure, a wide majority of the crime victims had a criminal history. But a previous arrest could mean anything from attempted murder to shoplifting infant formula or diapers for a baby. In the not-too-distant past, Baltimore police were making more than 100,000 arrests a year, often on the pretext of minor nuisance crimes. Were the victims carrying a gun because they were involved in violent activity or because they believed it was necessary to protect themselves? Was the previous arrest last week or 10 years ago?
Take a look at the homicide analysis sheet, provided by the department after the initial e-mail, and dig deeper into the data. You fill find that the cops aren’t solving many of the homicides. The clearance rate in 2018 was 43.4 percent, down from 51.5 percent the year before. For the majority of the killings they don’t even have a motive. How can you fight crime if you don’t have an understanding of why it is occurring?
Even if the homicides do involve people with a criminal past, that makes them no less relevant. A lost life is a lost life. Ask any grief specialist and they’ll tell you death has a ripple affect no matter who it is. Researchers estimate that every homicide has a direct impact on 10 other people.
Maybe the cops should take a deeper look at the ripple of affects of crime and poverty instead of demonizing all homicide victims with generalizations provided by vague statistics.
We understand that many of the violent crimes are committed by a small group of people and that there are a whole host of reasons why they have the opportunity to recommit crimes — from light sentences by judges to a stop snitching culture that makes witnesses scared to come forward.
But what seems to always be missing from the police analysis of homicide rates is self-reflection. What about the weaknesses in the department, such as investigations that lack solid evidence and corruption that makes it hard for many to believe anything anyone in the department says?
No matter who the crime victims are — whether they have criminal pasts or not — the fact still remains the homicide rate is high. Even if many parts of the city are safe for residents and visitors, this isn’t just a perception problem. Violence leads to trauma, and trauma leads to violence, and for generations, that is a cycle Baltimore has not been able to interrupt.
We recognize that the police aren’t responsible for the legacy of segregation, poverty, lack of opportunity and failing schools that contribute to Baltimore’s crime problem. They can’t solve everything. But the fact is, the police have done better in the past and must do better again. That starts with acknowledging their own failings, not blaming the victims.
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