Jacquelyn Smith’s killing last year prompted a resurgence in chatter about how dangerous Baltimore is. If someone could be killed after rolling down her window to give money to a woman with a baby begging for money on the streets, is there any depth of depravity the city's criminals won't sink to? That Smith was a professional woman from the suburbs on the way home from an evening of entertainment made her death the perfect justification for those who would never set foot in the city — and call anyone who does a fool who’s taking their life into their own hands.
Now police say the story about the panhandler isn’t true, that she was killed by her husband and stepdaughter. This wasn’t a case of Baltimore violence, police say, but of Harford County violence spilling over into the city.
In no way do we seek to minimize Baltimore’s struggle with violent crime. It is real, and it produces daily tragedies for families in this city. Everyone from the CeaseFire volunteers on the streets to the police commissioner and mayor needs to be focused on changing the culture of violence and retribution that has taken hold in too many corners of the city. It requires an approach that combines law enforcement, drug treatment, education, economic development and more. But what seems to get lost in the conversation too often is the truth that Baltimore’s violence is nowhere near so ubiquitous as those who studiously avoid the city might imagine. A story like Smith’s killing makes headlines because it is an aberration, but too many people assume it’s the norm.
In retrospect, there are plenty of elements of the initial story that Smith’s husband, Keith Smith, told the police that seem odd. He said the couple were driving through the Johnston Square neighborhood with his daughter (Jacquelyn’s step-daughter) in the back seat when a woman with a baby and a cardboard sign asking for money approached. Mr. Smith told police that he did not want to give money, but Jacquelyn did. A man then approached, he said, and reached through the window to try to grab her necklace and purse and stabbed her in the chest during the struggle. But few panhandlers are out after midnight, and neighbors said that not only did they not recognize a pair that met that description but that panhandling on that corner is unusual. And when the supposed assailant reached in to rob Jacquelyn, why didn’t Mr. Smith drive away?
But the story was calibrated to appeal to fear, not reason, and it succeeded. It combined the unease many feel with panhandlers on Baltimore’s streets with the prejudices many have about the city into a narrative that the public would be all-too-eager to embrace. (And just in case anyone didn't get the point, Mr. Smith helpfully added a warning about the “desperate people” on the streets of Baltimore. “They don’t need help; they’re trying to hurt you,” he said in the immediate aftermath of the murder.)
But this is hardly the first time suburbanites have stoked fear of Baltimore, whether it was former Del. Patrick McDonough declaring that “roving black youth mobs” made the Inner Harbor a “no-travel zone” or the Carroll County Board of Education banning field trips to Baltimore after a complaint from a parent that a 15-year-old had been arrested for carrying a fake gun vaguely in the vicinity of his child's class excursion to the Maryland Science Center. For all the tens of thousands of people who come to the city every day for jobs, cultural opportunities, sports, restaurants and entertainment, others cling to the belief that danger here is omnipresent and Baltimore is populated by predators intent on doing harm.