Charm City just marked a terrible milestone, hitting 300 homicides for the fifth year in a row. In the last decade, nearly 3,000 Baltimoreans have been murdered with no apparent progress.
What is to blame for Baltimore’s disturbing and persistently high death toll?
Baltimore’s Mayor Bernard “Jack” Young has the answer: “You break [the cycle of violence] by going into those neighborhoods and provide job opportunities for them, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
According to Mr. Young, then, violent criminals and wanton killers are just aspiring to a steady 9-to-5 gig and a white picket fence.
But the Sage of Baltimore, H.L. Mencken, decades ago laid bare the cruel lie that Mr. Young trades in, writing at the time: “the common argument that crime is caused by poverty is a kind of slander on the poor.”
Playwright Leonard Bernstein brilliantly satirized this type of excuse making for law-breaking and life-taking in “West Side Story,” when one of the protagonists sings to the neighborhood cop, “I’m depraved on account I’m deprived!”
Over 130,000 Baltimoreans live in poverty, and many more lack access to high quality education and work in low-paying and unrewarding jobs. But they don’t assault and rob passers-by, carry guns or kill their neighbors — only a tiny fraction of Charm City’s residents do.
Yet, Mr. Young insults hard-working, tax-paying and law-abiding, but economically struggling, Charm City citizens by suggesting their hardships cause violence.
If that were true, similarly situated cities would have murder rates on par with Baltimore’s, but no one else ranks this high this regularly.
Even Detroit, a slightly larger and even more economically distressed city, logged 85 fewer murders last year. Motor City still ranks as the 5th deadliest city in the country, but it’s murder rate is going in the right direction — down.
New York City — a city with 12 times as many poor residents — had fewer than 300 killings last year, compared to Baltimore’s 309 murders.
And criminologists like John Jay College Emeritus Professor Barry Latzer have debunked Mr. Young’s trope that being poor is a recipe for crime: “Most violent crime is not motivated by economic issues at all,” Mr. Latzer says. “It’s not motivated by money. It’s motivated by anger, by disputes, by conflicts between individuals.”
Meanwhile, Mayor Young assured the citizens of his burgh that he is “not committing the murders and that’s what people need to understand.”
But what else should Baltimoreans come to understand? That the City Council president turned mayor failed to adequately fund the police department, which is understaffed by 500 officers? Mr. Young personally led the charge, as council president, to block $21 million to maintain police on the beat in 2018.
Or that the mayor opposes an offer from a private individual to provide — at no cost to taxpayers — a surveillance plane that could assist authorities in tracking down killers quickly? The idea is backed by 74% of residents.
Or that Mayor Young has looked the other way as State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby drops 25% of illegal gun cases and plea deals down most of the rest, leaving those most prone to killing someone, on the streets?
Or that the Mr. Young’s violence prevention strategy, on top of the tens of millions of taxpayer dollars spent on make-work jobs, is to sanction fist fights? A surefire recipe for de-escalation, if there ever was one.
It is cold comfort to murder victims’ families or those shot, beaten or robbed — including half a dozen Baltimore police officers and employees — that the city’s mayor hasn’t killed anyone.
Nonetheless, the ineffectual, incompetent and accidental mayor has blood on his hands.
He should stop blaming the poor, cop to his failures and make amends.
Sean Kennedy (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a visiting fellow at the Maryland Public Policy Institute, where he focuses on urban issues and criminal justice.