In a city often divided along racial lines, then, there seems to be broad agreement that communities suffer a diminished quality of life and increased violence when public officials refuse to deter prostitution; public urination and defecation; dangerous traffic violations; and the conspicuous and unlicensed sale and consumption of large quantities of alcohol, marijuana, and other illicit substances.
Yet some Baltimore leaders seem convinced that this common sense, widely held view is all wrong. They embrace the disastrous de-policing program that began years ago, when Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake reduced the size of the Baltimore Police Department. More recently, city State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby added de-prosecution to the policy mix, claiming that the abovementioned crimes are “low-level offenses” and that enforcing the laws against them would have “no public safety value.”
Of course, eliminating all possibility of arrest and prosecution for relatively minor illegal activities also discards important leverage that law enforcement officials and community leaders often use to mitigate risk, de-escalate tensions and prevent bloodshed. And the ensuing chaos often drives discouraged Baltimoreans to give up and move away. Fortunately, however, the coalition of 37 Fells Point merchants is sticking around and speaking up. Their protest involves withholding “city taxes and minor privilege and permit fees” and placing those funds in escrow “until and unless basic and essential municipal services are restored.”
The merchants were moved to action after the city government’s indifference to law and order led to two separate shootings that injured three people in Fells Point. That gunplay seemed to be the last straw, precipitating a media uproar as business owners and residents vented about the city’s lawlessness. Many shops and restaurants routinely sacrifice several hours of economic activity to close early out of safety concerns. “Right now, we close at 6 p.m. every day of the week,” Nick Johnson, owner of Su Casa Furniture, told WBAL Radio. “That doesn’t just affect me and my business. That affects my employees and their livelihoods.”
Throughout the neighborhood, residents and business owners say illegal vendors distribute liquor out of the trunks of their cars while others roll coolers along the streets to sell alcohol — even to teenagers and preteens. Open-air drug dealing is ubiquitous, and people casually smoke out of bongs or absurdly long joints. Large fights erupt, and no one tries to break them up. Dirt bikers and drunk drivers noisily ride wherever they please as fast as they please. “Drunk as a skunk, one of the guys fighting gets in his car and goes 60 mph down a pedestrian filled road,” complained saloon owner Eric Mathias in an incensed Facebook post. This “is literally worse than the wild-wild-west.”
Frustrated people throughout the city routinely deal with crime, grime and other ills far worse than those in Fells Point. “We need Batman here in Baltimore,” said one exasperated resident, Patricia Redmond, during a recent neighborhood walk near Mondawmin Mall. It’s no surprise, then, that various community leaders are eager to see how well the tax strike works in the days and weeks ahead. “I commend Fells Point for what they are doing,” said “Doc” Cheatham, president of West Baltimore’s Matthew Henson Neighborhood Association. “I’m telling Black communities to stop, look and listen. We can learn a lot from what they are doing.”
City officials — most notably Mayor Brandon Scott and State’s Attorney Mosby — have a lot to learn, as well. To be sure, a return to “zero tolerance” policing, along with excessive arrest and incarceration rates would have disastrous consequences in Baltimore. But commitment to de-policing and de-prosecution has replaced “zero tolerance” with another devastating approach: “infinite tolerance.” There is a happy medium of law enforcement, and, if more of us come together, then maybe Baltimore can find it before the chaos gets worse.
Louis Miserendino (email@example.com) is a visiting fellow at the Maryland Public Policy Institute.