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Video of assault on Baltimore Police employee stirs passions but not necessarily solutions

Video of assault on Baltimore Police employee stirs passions but not necessarily solutions
Baltimore City Police Commissioner Michael Harrison takes questions after releasing the Commissioner’s Crime Plan on Thursday, July 18 at police headquarters. (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)

For anyone in search of an anger fix, the video of an assault on a Baltimore Police Department employee in the early morning hours on Albermarle Street in historic Jonestown near downtown Baltimore should do the trick. To call it appalling doesn’t do the moment justice. Two young men and one woman show up on scooters (which only adds to the surrealism of the moment) to rob, take the keys from and bash in the head of the 59-year-old man dressed in a white tunic last Wednesday. One of the assailants kicks him so hard the victim appears to go unconscious. It is horrible. It is sickening. And if it doesn’t make your blood boil, perhaps nothing can.

But for all that awfulness, not to mention symbolism and miserable timing — given that it was the second Baltimore police employee to be assaulted in a week following the armed robbery of a deputy police commissioner five days earlier near Patterson Park — there is something that can’t be seen in this disturbing bit of video: a clear picture of crime in Baltimore.

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Of course that hasn’t stopped the social media crowd, Twitter, talk radio and all the other venues that crave emotional gut-punches over rational discourse from going into full rant. Once again, some are calling for an abandonment of Baltimore or perhaps imposition of martial law. Others crave extreme punishment against the perpetrators. We’ve even heard critiques of Michael Harrison, the city’s police commissioner of less than five months tenure, questioning whether he has expressed a sufficient level of outrage over the victimization of two employees. And then there is the case of the Baltimore woman pistol whipped while holding her 5-month-old son last Tuesday. Small wonder the cyber-consensus is that it’s unsafe to step one foot across the municipal line, how it’s never been this bad, how nobody is offering solutions.

That’s wrong. But worse, it’s counter-productive to actual crime-fighting.

Deputy Police Commissioner of Operations Michael Sullivan speaks at a press conference Friday on the attack on an employee of the Baltimore Police Department.
Deputy Police Commissioner of Operations Michael Sullivan speaks at a press conference Friday on the attack on an employee of the Baltimore Police Department. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

As terrible as this video is to watch and as much as certain crimes draw public attention, they do not represent anything more than the heinous events that they are (in the case of the video, it’s about 50 seconds in the middle of the street). As much attention as the city’s near-record homicide rate receives (and deservedly so), this single case doesn’t not reflect some profound shift in criminal behavior. Most Baltimore crime rates have fallen. Does that shock? It might surprise the average tweeter. Take a look at the latest numbers available from the Baltimore Police Department. From robbery to assault to burglary, the statistics point to a general improvement so far in 2019 over 2018.

That’s not to diminish recent crimes, but no rational anti-crime policy can be pursued if public sentiment is kept at a non-stop rolling boil. Outrageous criminal behavior happened decades ago, too, but was less commonly captured on video. An assault like the recent ones on civilian police employees? It would surely have been reported in this newspaper and elsewhere, yet not with the gut-punch of streaming video or the cackle of internet trolls posting it over and over again. Police would be given the time to investigate crimes, neighbors the chance to take rational counter-measures and community groups the opportunity to support those efforts.

Crime-fighting is complex as we’ve observed on these pages before. It’s not just about making arrests or achieving convictions in court, it’s about preventing these incidents from happening in the first place. It requires better schools, better social services and family counseling, better job training and employment opportunities, better police-community relations, better recruitment and training of law enforcement and on and on. Now, which of these remedies is improved by panic and flight from the city? The answer is none.

Commissioner Harrison has a tough job, there’s no doubt. But the ink has barely dried on his crime plan submitted just days before these events. There’s no denying Baltimore has a crime problem, especially when it comes to homicides and the cycle of violence between young men with guns who are victims one day and perpetrators the next, but overstating what’s happening only invites irrational fear and discourages investment, which, in turn, only worsens those other two maladies that so often accompany urban crime — concentrated poverty and drug addiction. We have enough anger, what’s most needed now is leadership, hard work, the resources to get the job done and, yes, maybe a bit of faith.

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