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The Bronx has all the same problems as Baltimore — except murders

An excerpt from an exclusive joint interview with Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby and Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis that covered topics ranging from homicides, communication between the offices and body camera footage. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

In 1980, when bragging about "renaissance" was all the rage, the late Baltimore writer Helen J. Rizzo injected a decidedly sour note. "But until we stop treating our high crime rate as an accepted way of life," Rizzo wrote, "Baltimore will remain a smartly gowned, coiffed and perfumed matron who hasn't bathed in a month and whose offensiveness is readily apparent to all who come near her."

We may wonder whether Rizzo, who so masterfully captured the hollowness of "renaissance," could have foreseen the worsening of Baltimore's crime problem. Could she have imagined that the raw number of murders in the city would surpass that of New York City?

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Any attempt at understanding the crime problem must distinguish what former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called the "known knowns" from the "known unknowns." Homicides constitute a small portion of total crime but are a vital category for analysis as the statistics are extremely reliable.

The causes of crime fall, to a large extent, into the category of "known unknowns." Certain factors are often associated with crime, but correlation is not causation. Take one of the major factors frequently tagged as a "root cause" of crime: poverty. Mayor Catherine Pugh, when asked why Boston had a far lower homicide rate, replied that it could not be compared with Baltimore because it is considerably more affluent. This view is, at best, a half truth. Baltimore's poverty rate is 5 percent higher than Boston's. Can that really explain why Baltimore's homicide rate is 650 percent higher?

Between 1993 and 2016 the homicide rate in Washington fell by 74 percent. This decline has been attributed, in large part, to extensive gentrification. Over the same time period the homicide rate in the Bronx, which experienced far less gentrification, fell by 84 percent.

The notion, then, that "root causes" such as poverty produce crime the way a the bite of an infected tick causes Lyme disease is therefore misleading and simplistic. As Gwynn Nettler argued in his classic "Explaining Crime," multiple factors interact with one another and are embedded in a larger cultural context.

In Baltimore that context likely involves blocked mobility. When economists Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren analyzed the nation's 100 largest counties to determine the opportunity they provided for economic mobility, Baltimore placed dead last. It should be recalled that in 1910 Baltimore pioneered a housing segregation law that was extreme even by the standards of the Jim Crow era. The results of the Chetty-Hendren study, coming a century after the 1910 law, are indicative of entrenched cultural patterns. Baltimore's Achilles heel may well be its longstanding caste-like stratification along racial, economic and social lines.

These considerations, as important and suggestive as they may be, are not especially helpful in providing an operational approach for crime reduction. After all, if intense stratification and blocked mobility in Baltimore have persisted for so long, learning how to change these patterns largely belongs in the category of "known unknowns."

The experience of the Bronx, by contrast, provides a dramatic demonstration of "known knowns." In 1990 the homicide rate in the borough, at 54.2 per 100,000 population, was very similar to the 2017 rate in Baltimore. There were 652 murders in the Bronx that year; last year, the borough had 97 murders, and the homicide rate has seen a further decline so far in 2017.

The Bronx hasn't solved the putative root causes of crime; its poverty rate is considerably higher than Baltimore's. Its success has involved preventing crime and reducing its incidence.

Given this city's abysmal record on crime reduction it is understandable if people are less than sanguine regarding the prospects of Mayor Pugh's recent crime-fighting proposals. Such skepticism is particularly understandable in view of Baltimore's consistently poor quality of life metrics compared with those of both less privileged and more privileged places, as well as the city's frequent infatuation with empty theatrics (the Grand Prix, slogans on benches).

Can Baltimore actually do more than bring an extremely high homicide rate down to a moderately high level? Civic groups and the media need to monitor and disseminate outcomes repeatedly; specific numerical goals must be set. These parties, along with criminologists, would do well to conduct an exhaustive study to determine how the Bronx managed to reduce its homicide rate by over 85 percent despite adverse environmental conditions.

What is the difference, in life and death, between success and failure? How many murder victims in Baltimore, you may ask, would have lived since 1995 if this city's homicide rate had been identical to that of the Bronx each year during that time? The answer: 4,500.

Think about that number. Better yet, don't stop thinking about it.

Christopher Muldor (cmuldor@gmail.com) is a Baltimore freelance editor who frequently writes on public policy issues.

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