A group of volunteers cleaning up West Baltimore help revive one of two men who had apparently overdosed on the same block they were working on.
A group of volunteers cleaning up West Baltimore help revive one of two men who had apparently overdosed on the same block they were working on. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

We offer our thanks to the volunteers from out of state who came to Baltimore to clear trash and found themselves helping save two apparent overdose victims. They were here to do a good deed and wound up doing an even better one.

The incident comes amid a period of great national scrutiny of Baltimore’s problems, fueled by President Donald Trump’s tweets mocking the city, and it says a couple of things about the true nature of what’s going on here that much of the national discussion has missed.


First, one of the volunteers happened to be a former police officer who knew how to administer the anti-overdose medication naloxone because the opioid epidemic is a problem everywhere — in Florida and New York, where the volunteers came from, in big cities, in suburbs and in rural communities. The problem may be particularly concentrated in some parts of Baltimore, but its character is the same everywhere.

Second, the reason the volunteer was able to administer naloxone and possibly save two lives is that a Baltimore resident on the scene happened to have some on hand. That’s not a coincidence. Baltimore’s health department has been at the forefront nationally in trying to make naloxone as widely available as possible and to train residents in its use. The city was an early adopter of the harm reduction strategy for coping with addiction, and Baltimore is home to a wide variety of institutions dedicated to advancing the practice of addiction treatment. We haven’t solved the problem, but we have shown courage in our willingness to try new approaches.

I think it is virtually impossible to reform the current Baltimore system.

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All that stands in contrast to a narrative that has developed during the last few weeks of a city that is broken and hopeless, inured to the disaster all around. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich encapsulated that idea in a two-part, 3,200-word essay he published on his website this week, in which he opines, “I think it is virtually impossible to reform the current Baltimore system. The corruption is too great, the bureaucracies are too powerful, the culture of despair and dependency is too widespread, and the stunning decentralization of authority and activism is too great.”

What we need, Mr. Gingrich gets around to telling us in Part II, is a “Baltimore app.” He imagines a smartphone-based portal for residents for all public services, from business creation to reporting crime. It would provide a way for individuals to measure city-wide outcomes. It would let people go through the steps to start a business “at night and on weekends at their convenience instead of the bureaucrats’ convenience.”

Done and done, from the 311 app to an online business formation portal to the Open Baltimore data site. Pay youth to fix up playgrounds and parks? Yep, we do that. Implement Guiuliani-style policing and save thousands of lives? Tried it. We wound up with rampant police brutality complaints, tens of thousands of people with criminal records for petty offenses and, eventually, a riot. Oh, and crime actually dropped to its lowest point after we renounced zero tolerance.

We are not captive to a corrupt political system. We know our government needs to do better. That’s why we replaced nearly the entire City Council in the last election, and that’s why we forced our last mayor out of office six weeks after the first hint of her malfeasance came to light.

We welcome new ideas, but it is a mistake to think we have none of our own. Baltimore has a profusion of non-profits, think tanks, foundations and volunteer groups that work on education, housing, crime, addiction, poverty, health disparities — you name it. We are not resigned to our problems but constantly trying new ideas to address them, with charter schools, Safe Streets, early childhood education, family building non-profits, programs that marry skills training with blight elimination, and on and on.

Baltimore needs help, heaven knows, but we are not helpless.