Inside City Hall
The perils of declaring victory in the war on violence
Just a month ago, city officials were lauding the drop in shootings and homicides. Then came two weeks of bloodshed and the death of a three-year-old.
Above: Mayor Rawlings-Blake announces a sharp decline in homicides on July 11. Then came the deluge.
Bloodletting, like bad weather, can come at inopportune moments.
On July 11, for example, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake stood behind her portable podium in Northeast’s Belair-Edison neighborhood. Her press conference was on the eve of the 300 Men March to End Violence, and she wanted the optics of ordinary citizens battling crime to shine on her administration.
Surrounded by police brass and community leaders, she declared:
“A year ago, our city faced its most violent summer in recent memory. But with urgency and vigor, we stepped up our efforts to fight against violent crime in our communities. So far this year, we have seen one of the lowest mid-year homicide counts in nearly three decades.”
The homicide count of 97 was put forth as proof that her strategy of increased funding for the police department and prosecutors – higher wages, more manpower, an array of initiatives like Special Enforcement Zones, Operation Ceasefire and the soon-to-come Youth Connection Centers – was putting Baltimore on the right path.
“Working together, we can make Baltimore the safest big city in America,” the mayor declared.
An Unexpected Storm
But then came the second half of July, where a deluge of violence culminated in 28 shootings last week and 16 homicides since July 11, including the killing of a three-year-old girl via a stray bullet.
McKenzie Elliott’s death last Friday – she was playing on the front porch of her home when a “wild-west” shootout erupted on a normally placid North Baltimore street – set the mayor and police department in damage-control mode over the weekend.
Walking through the neighborhood, Rawlings-Blake denounced the shooting as the “most heinous act of cowardice,” while Deputy Police Commissioner Jerry Rodriguez said, “We’re outraged, we’re heartbroken.” The mayor and police then urged members of the community to step forward with information to help them catch the culprit.
(There’s always a rhythm to neighborhood walks by officials after a high-profile incident – sympathy for the victim’s family mixed with a subtle shifting of the onus of crime-solving to the community.)
For a city with the third-highest ratio of cops to citizens in the U.S., one would think the police would have more ears to the ground. But quoting from last year’s less-than-complimentary study of BPD operations by ex-LAPD chief William J. Bratton, the 4,000-plus force “has become disengaged from the problems on the street” and “particularly from crime.”
As August begins, the city’s 2014 homicide tally has jumped to 120, putting it on course to reach 205 by year’s end if the trajectory of killings recedes to its prior six-month “norm,” and as much as 240 if the killings follow the July spree.
While readily acknowledging that Baltimore’s persistent violence is a complex problem whose solution eludes this writer, it seems worthwhile to bring some context to the early July storyline that homicides were receding to a three-decade low, followed by the rekindling of the “Bulletmore” narrative over the weekend.
The latest twist arose not only because of McKenzie Elliott’s tragic death, but from the seemingly senseless slaying of a 20-year-old college student the night before in Park Heights as well as the brazen attempt to rob a Whole Foods store that shook residents of tony Harbor East on July 20.
In a city with as much poverty and physical abandonment as Baltimore, violent crime is something that seems to overwhelm both mayors and police commissioners. Their cycle in office is maybe too short to sustain long-term plans, which leads them to take credit for fragile victories that can quickly shatter.
(Here, as an example, the mayor and Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts declare that violent crime “continues to decline in Baltimore” just as it was about to spurt.)
Meanwhile, citizens, especially in poorer neighborhoods, must resign themselves to the “normalcy” of violence that goes through periods of calm, only to erupt and claim another young and innocent victim.