Advertisement

The deadliest year

On Monday Baltimore passed a milestone of sorts, though no one is celebrating: Police said an unidentified man found dead in the 2700 block of the Alameda, near Clifton Park in Coldstream-Homestead-Montebello, became the city's 200th homicide this year, the latest victim of a spike in deadly violence that has seen on average more than a killing every day for the last three months. Last year the city didn't see 200 homicides until Dec. 7. At the current pace, homicides in Baltimore would easily top the 300 mark by year's end, a rate not seen since the drug- and gang-fueled carnage of the 1980s and '90s.

Sadly, Baltimore is not unique in that regard. Homicides are up in major cities across the country, including New York, Chicago, Houston and Hartford, Conn. But Baltimore's spike has been one of the steepest on record, and the tragic loss of life here is compounded by the fact that even the experts can't say with any certainty why it's happening. The city is looking to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Interim Police Commissioner Kevin Davis to somehow quell the violence, but that's a tall order in the current situation in which nobody seems to be in control.

Advertisement

Police have theorized that an influx of prescription drugs looted from pharmacies during the unrest following the death of Freddie Gray in police custody last April may have disrupted the market for illegal narcotics in the city and touched off a series of bloody turf wars among rival gangs. If that's the case the killings may subside of their own accord once the illegal drug market reverts to its pre-riot model. Or it could remain permanently destabilized, in which case the pace of drug-related killings might actually increase.

It's also possible that the riots themselves — and the police response to them — had the effect of weakening the bonds of social cohesion in the city's most distressed communities, leading people to take advantage of the civil unrest to settle old scores or resort to retaliatory justice. Because many people already don't trust the police or the courts to protect them, they may feel compelled to take matters into their own hands while deliberately refusing to cooperate with the authorities. City State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby recently cited the reluctance of crime victims and witnesses to testify against criminal suspects for fear of retaliation, but the consequences of their refusal risks plunging the city into a nightmare scenario in which private individuals mete out justice in a Hobbesian war of all against all.

Baltimore business and civic leaders clearly recognize that the contagious nature of the violence is bad for the city's image and its prospects for attracting new residents and businesses. They also recognize that poverty, unemployment and lack of education are key drivers of crime in Baltimore and that the city must do more to address such problems. On the same day the city recorded its 200th homicide of the year, Donald C. Fry, the president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee, told The Sun's editorial board his group was urging local employers to hire ex-offenders struggling to reconnect with their communities after returning from prison in order to give them alternatives to a life of crime and reduce recidivism rates.

Such efforts are clearly needed. The spike in violence Baltimore has witnessed this year isn't occurring in a vacuum but in the context of multiple social tensions that have stretched the bonds of community nearly to the breaking point. The riots after Freddie Gray's death were no more a simple reaction to one man's death in police custody than the killings that followed are the simple result of police deployment and tactics. Both are born of environments of hopelessness and quotidian injustice that need to be addressed in a sustained and holistic manner if Baltimore is ever going to drop off the list of America's deadliest cities.

But that doesn't solve the short term problem as residents clamor for city leaders to find a way to reverse the spike in bloodshed. We have no ready answer, but we do know it can't be helpful that those engaged in the crime fight haven't been speaking with one voice at least since the current crisis began. We need someone to lead local, state and federal police, prosecutors and others in a focused, coherent strategy to bring the violence under control. Traditionally, that would be the mayor, but at this point, we'll take what we can get.

Advertisement
Advertisement