Can Baltimore Recover from Its 2015 Murder Wave?
Last year saw record homicides and near-constant shootings in Charm City, especially after Freddie Gray died in police custody. Will 2016 be any different?
Baltimore in December. Photo via Flickr user davidjoyner
For criminal justice activists, 2015 was an exhausting year. After high-profile police brutality incidents captured the public imagination at the tail-end of 2014, America had a new national conversation about racism to contend with. Protesters took to the streets across the country, chanting "Hands up, don't shoot!" and "I can't breathe!"; fresh instances of death and pain inflicted by police officers on (mostly) black civilians spread across social media every week; newspapers compiled databases of the number of people killed by cops; presidential candidates were asked to distinguish between "Black Lives Matter" and "All Lives Matter" on nationally-televised debates.
One of the responses to these protests from the law-and-order crowd was to ask if all this campaigning against police brutality was contributing to an increase in crime. This is the so-called "Ferguson Effect," a theory suggesting that anti-cop rhetoric was creating a climate in which police could no longer effectively do their jobs. It remains a theory—the statistical evidence supporting a rise in crime rates is thin; last month, the Brennan Center for Justice, a public policy and law institute affiliated with New York University, published a report finding crime was roughly the same last year as it had been in 2014 in America's largest cities.
That report, however, was scant comfort to Baltimore, a city where mistrust between the cops and the people they serve may have created some serious challenges. Charm City saw a per-capita record of 344 homicides in 2015, the highest total since 1993, when the city had 100,000 more people living in it, as the Baltimore Sun reported this month. In April, 25-year-old Freddie Gray died while in police custody, sparking weeks of Baltimore protests and unrest. In five of the eight months following Gray's death, homicides surpassed 30 or 40 a month. Before the unrest, according to the paper, Baltimore had not witnessed 30 or more homicides in one month since June 2007.
All told, there were some 900 shootings in Baltimore last year, up some 75 percent from 2014—a violent crime spike unparalleled among the 30 largest cities in America, according to the Brennan Center's analysis. Though Baltimore's police and political leadership insist they are determined to make last year's crime statistics an aberration, whether they're planning to do so through tougher policing in 2016 remains to be seen. And with high-stakes local elections coming up, along with a legislative season where police reform will most certainly be on the table and months of trials left for the six officers charged with the death of Freddie Gray, Baltimore residents are not expecting closure to the unrest any time soon.
Speaking to the Sun, Police Commissioner Kevin Davis recently said he plans to pressure the state legislature to make possession of illegal firearms a felony, rather than a misdemeanor, and for police to hunt down gun traffickers. He also said he's ramping up recruitment efforts for 200 vacancies in the police force, and trying to coax retired cops to come back to the department. Davis wants to increase street patrols, focus more on residential burglaries, and partner with other city agencies to prevent and solve crime. These priorities reflect some ugly statistics: The BPD's homicide clearance rate dropped sharply in 2015; police solved only about 30 percent of all cases, and according to the Sun, their 2015 clearance rate was less than half the 2014 national average—as well as some 15 percentage points below the BPD's own average in recent years. Experts suspect that the lack of trust between the police and the community is a major contributing factor behind the low clearance rate. (The Baltimore Police Department did not return repeated requests for comment for this story.)
Peter Moskos, a former Baltimore City Police Officer and professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, thinks that until the cops on trial for Freddie Gray's death are acquitted, the BPD is not going to be able to do its job effectively. "It isn't that these officers did something bad and got caught. It's that they did exactly what they were told to do and are being prosecuted for it," he says. "As long as cops feel like they can get criminally prosecuted for doing their job, you shouldn't expect cops to be proactively policing." He adds that winter offers a sort of natural reset button for communities, since crime tends to go down when the temperature drops. "It gives them an opportunity to feel like, OK, we're starting over," he says. "But the department is still understaffed and morale is in the tank."
Tara Huffman, director of Criminal and Juvenile Justice Programs at Baltimore's Open Society Institute (OSI), says her organization has been working closely with Commissioner Davis and Baltimore's police to help them identify and reduce discriminatory practices within their department. This would hopefully help to restore some trust between the police and Baltimore residents. OSI will also be providing seed funding for a policing pilot program this year where officers will send people who appear to be suffering from an underlying drug addiction into a community-based treatment center rather than arresting them. The Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, (LEAD) was first developed in Seattle, and it helped to keep low-level offenders out of the criminal justice system while also getting them the aid they needed.
When asked whether she thinks the city has responded in a serious enough way to the unrest and its aftermath, Huffman acknowledged that there's "a lot of talking" going on, including dialogue between people who don't normally speak to each other. "There is room for progressive ideas and solutions that wouldn't have gotten the same audience eight months ago," she told me. "But we're not seeing the fruit yet. I think we still have a ways to go until we see the fruit."
The question of whether the city and state will be willing to make serious investments in poor Baltimore communities, a critical factor for reducing gun violence long-term, remains an open one. Just last month, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund filed a federal complaint over the cancellation of a long-planned transit project in Baltimore, which would have primarily benefitted low-income blacks who lack quality transportation options. Maryland Governor Larry Hogan cancelled the project and diverted money to roads and highways elsewhere in the state. The city also massively underfunded its Operation Ceasefire program, a violence-reduction initiative that has proved successful in cities like New York. Baltimore's Operation Ceasefire director resigned last spring in protest, citing insufficient resources and support. In addition, following the Freddie Gray protests, Governor Hogan cut Baltimore City's public education funding by 3.3 percent.
Yet on Tuesday the governor traveled to West Baltimore to announce a nearly $700 million plan to tear down vacant buildings throughout the city and bring in new development over the next four years.
"I don't see us policing ourselves out of this crisis. That has never worked before," says Alex Elkins, a visiting historian at the University of Michigan who studies the police. "We need sustained engagement with hard-hit communities in order to establish a different pipeline, toward civic inclusion rather than banishment to jail and prison. To achieve that, a policy that attacks root causes is essential, ethically and strategically."
"People are generally angry about a variety of things, and we have a community that makes promises but no real substantive investments," adds Dayvon Love, co-founder of Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle (LBS), a grassroots organization that advocates for the interests of black people in Baltimore. "This year we're gonna see a lot more of what we saw in 2015. It won't be an anomaly. We'll continue to see a lot of the same."
City residents are not expecting an end to the unrest any time soon. The six officers on trial for Freddie Gray's death will take the stand over the next several months; the first officer's first trial, which ended in a hung jury, has already been rescheduled for June. The pretrial hearing for the second officer, Caesar R. Goodson Jr., began Wednesday. Goodson faces a number of charges, including second-degree depraved heart murder, a crime carrying a maximum 30-year sentence.
On top of the trials, 2016 is set to be an intense year for state and local politics. The state legislative session kicks off in Annapolis next week, and activist leaders will be pressuring legislators to pass police reform measures, like body cameras and changes to the Law Enforcement Bill of Rights—or a list of ways cops can evade scrutiny. On top of that, a new Baltimore mayor and City Council will be elected in November; Huffman thinks the current City Council could turn over more than 50 percent in the next cycle.
Love says he and other activists will continue to pressure leaders to invest directly in the people living in the beleaguered communities—a more effective and sustainable way, he argues, to create safe and thriving neighborhoods.
Elkins agrees. "Anything we try will be expensive—rather, anything that is worth trying ought to be expensive," he says. "The spike after Gray's death and the riots does seem anomalous at the same time that it is cause for concern. Yet we shouldn't be distracted by the dispute over the Ferguson Effect—which essentially asks, who's to blame? That's a sideshow to the real issue of economic justice. Because of the way our criminal justice system favors the rich over the poor, we should be trying to empower the poor."
OSI's Huffman adds that it remains to be seen whether the powers that be are ready to do what the city needs.
"There's definitely political will to stop the bleeding, but whether or not there's a real recognition of what the underlying problems are, I'm not sure," she says. "The city is still in transition, but we have a lot of opportunities right now to get this right."
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