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Bodies Are Piling Up in Baltimore — But Fears of a US Crime Surge Might Be Overblown

Five federal law enforcement agencies have dispatched agents help combat Baltimore’s spike in homicides, but some experts are skeptical that crime is rising nationwide.

by Colleen Curry
Aug 5 2015, 2:18pm

Photo by Jim Bourg/Reuters

Five federal law enforcement agencies have answered Baltimore's call for help in combatting its spike in homicides this year by dispatching agents to embed with the city's police department. Two people were killed and nine wounded in shootings over the weekend, and July ended with a record-tying 45 murders in the city.

The FBI, DEA, Secret Service, US Marshals, and ATF will all send two agents to the city to help investigate cases over the next two months, city leaders said at a press conference Monday. Baltimore sought help after a nearly 50 percent jump in homicides in the first six months of this year. The crime wave has coincided with a decreasing number of arrests, and allegations of a police slowdown following criminal charges against six officers involved in the Freddy Gray case.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake previously created a "Homicide Review Commission," which was meant to bring together law enforcement, prosecutors, and academics to study real-time crime trends and respond to them. The effort was derailed this week when State Attorney Marilyn Mosby was accused of refusing to share information about open cases, according to the Baltimore Sun. The commission was based on a similar one in Milwaukee, which has also seen an uptick in violent crime this year, according to the report.

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Neither the Mayor's office nor the State's Attorney's office responded to requests for comment from VICE News, though Mosby defended her decision to Baltimore radio station WBAL on Tuesday morning, saying that Baltimore's unique vulnerability to witness intimidation led to her decision to keep all information about open cases protected.

"Despite what was reported, my office had several internal conversations with the researcher and the Baltimore Police Department about this, and they agreed that exposing sensitive information about unclosed cases is reckless and unproductive," Mosby told WBAL. "We have a hard enough time getting witnesses to come forward… to add another layer onto the witness intimidation factor by opening the door for an academic researcher and community groups to talk with victims and witnesses is outrageous to me."

'We can't build safe communities if police are the primary way you go about it. That never has worked and never will work.'

Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research and the lead academic researcher on the Commission, told the Sun that Mosby's decision "really defeated the purpose and it completely took the air out of the whole process, and I notified the police commissioner and mayor's office and health commissioner that it just wasn't going to work… It was incredibly frustrating."

Other shakeups have also come amid the crime spike. Last month, Rawlings-Blake fired police commissioner Anthony Batts, who was accused of losing officers' trust during the chaos that followed Freddy Gray's death, and replaced him with an interim commissioner. Maryland Governor Larry Hogan also announced last week that he would close the beleaguered Baltimore City Detention Center.

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Baltimore's crime increase mirrors similar trends in other major US cities, including New York, which has reported a 10 percent spike in homicides over the previous year, and Los Angeles, which reported a 20 percent increase in violent crime in the first half of the year. (The homicide rate in Los Angeles, however, was down nearly 15 percent during the first five months of 2015.) Some fear the trends could signal an end to more than a decade of decreasing violent crime in the country's major cities. New York Police Commissioner Bill Bratton said after a particularly violent weekend this month that, "we need to get this right, we can't repeat the 1970s again."

Chicago and St. Louis have also reported increased homicide numbers in year-over-year data. Darrell Stephens, executive director of the Major City Chiefs, gathered with city police chiefs and political leaders for a conference this week to discuss crime problems. Stephens told VICE News that a major topic of conversation was the sudden spike in violent crimes occurring in at least 35 American cities.

"There are no clear answers as to what might be causing it," Stephens said. He suggested that repeat offenders who engage in violent crime after leaving prison account for a significant portion of the bloodshed. Many attendees at the conference also talked about guns, he said.

"A lot of what people are seeing in different cities across the country are a lot more rounds being fired in shootouts on the street, with high capacity magazines and the availability of guns," Stephens said. "So having easily obtainable weapons in the hands of people who settle arguments with violence is part of the problem."

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Mike McLively, a staff attorney at the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, agreed, telling VICE News that gun crime can't be expected to decrease until stricter national gun laws are in place.

"We need to strengthen and shore up gun laws in this country, and until we do that we wouldn't expect to see a major shift in the trends or be surprised to see increase in gun crime," McLively said.

The burgeoning heroin trade, an uptick in domestic violence, and public policy around marijuana have also been floated as potential causes of the crime spike, Stephens said, noting that the complexities of the criminal justice system and other factors mean that blame cannot be placed squarely on law enforcement.

"We can't build safe communities if police are the primary way you go about it," he said. "That never has worked and never will work."

'Small bumps in crime can look like spikes.'

Samuel Bieler, a research associate in the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute, told VICE News that Washington, DC has also seen a recent increase in crime, but he was reticent to characterize it as a trend, or as a turning point for crime trends across the nation.

"I think there really needs to be more care in thinking about whether this is a spike, in the sense that there is a real change in the trend of cities getting safer and safer, or whether this is an anomaly," Bieler said. "Small bumps in crime can look like spikes."

Bieler and others pointed out that crime always spikes in the summer in cities, when people are outdoors and more likely to run into another than in the winter, allowing for confrontations and conflict to occur more easily. But the notion that crime is rising in a significant way may be premature, he said.

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Several other prominent scholars and experts on criminal justice issues have disputed assertions that crime is dramatically on the rise. In a recent opinion piece for the New York Daily News, Franklin Zimring, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of The City That Became Safe: New York's Lessons for Crime and Its Control, noted that recent crime statistics indicate that New York is experiencing significant declines from 2014's "ultra-low" levels in burglary, robbery and larceny. And, while homicides are up over the previous year, they are still close to the pace of 2013 and around 30 percent lower than in 2010. 

According to Zimring, if killings continue at the current rate, 2015 would end with either the third or fourth fewest murders in New York's modern history. "There are real increases in violence in Baltimore, Maryland in recent weeks and perhaps in St. Louis," he wrote, "but making that into a national crime wave deserves an Olympic medal for jumping to conclusions."

Follow Collen Curry on Twitter: @currycolleen

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