Donald Fry: Moving beyond outrage over violent crime

By Donald C. Fry

Baltimore’s tragic week of 32 shootings that left 12 dead since last Friday has triggered a round of public outrage and concern voiced by elected leaders over both the shootings themselves and, to some extent, the public statements from police about violence in the city.

This fresh round of public dialogue about violent crime in Baltimore City serves to frame an important assessment about the nature of the city’s decades-long effort to reduce violent crime and to gauge the prospects for progress as that effort continues.

The shootings during the last seven days occurred in more than a dozen incidents that took place between June 22 and June 27 in a broad range of neighborhoods in eastern, western, northern, northwestern and southwestern parts of the city.

Initial reactions by city police acknowledged, but downplayed the violent weekend, terming it “a little bit of a spike,” noting that such spikes “are going to happen” and that overall crime in the city is on a downward trend. To be fair, these kinds of clinical operational assessments are typical of law enforcement officials who are on the front lines of crime fighting every day.

Police Commissioner Anthony Batts has pledged an “assertive” response to the spike.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake pledged that the recent violence “will not diminish our resolve” to target repeat violent offenders and gangs in Baltimore City.

Speaking to Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton, one city council member called for hearings to make sure city police are prepared for increased summer violence. Another said many city residents were upset by police statements about the weekend. Another council member said residents are “fed up” with city government’s inability to quell violent crime.

Two things strike me about the reaction so far to the violent weekend.

First, no one is venturing to address the issue of why such spikes occur. Pronouncing 12 homicides in a week as the result of an unfortunate “spike” is not a reason. It’s an excuse.

Second, most tend to assign the responsibility for doing something about the violence to someone else, usually the government or the police.

The elephant in the room, of course, is the degree of complacency that appears to exist in Baltimore. Too many seem willing to accept the notion that, well, Baltimore is by nature a violent city and, like the weather, violent crime simply must be endured if you live here.

Granted, crime is a complex issue impacted by a myriad of factors including social trends, demographics, health, education, public policy and dozens of other variables.

Nevertheless, the level of crime that Baltimore endures doesn’t occur in most other cities – all but four in the U.S. to be exact – New Orleans, Detroit, Newark (New Jersey) and St. Louis.

In Baltimore, we are striving to be among the vast majority of U.S. cities and communities that are, frankly, not afflicted by unacceptable levels of crime.

Police officials accurately note that crime in Baltimore has been reduced over the last decade. But even at its “reduced” level, violent crime continues to inflict personal tragedy on a daily basis to Baltimore neighborhoods. It’s critically important to also understand that the existing level of crime impacts economic growth in Baltimore and detracts from the city’s many positives as a place to live and work.

Crime is an issue that must be more comprehensively addressed if the Mayor is to have any possibility of achieving her goal of growing the city by 10,000 families.

Even in 2011, when Baltimore’s homicide count of 197 was the lowest the city had experienced since the 1970s, our citywide rate of 3.1 homicides per 10,000 residents still ranked 5th highest in the nation.

The Madison-East neighborhood, where someone sprayed bullets into a crowd of people last weekend, has a homicide rate of 10.6 per 10,000 residents. That makes homicide the third-leading cause of death in that neighborhood – behind heart disease and cancer, according to city data.

A half-dozen other city neighborhoods have annual homicide rates of more than 6.0 per 10,000 residents, which is higher than the overall homicide rate of any city in the U.S.

Baltimore’s historic struggle with homicide rates, which exceeded 300 per year in the 1990s, is well documented. Since 2000, city police have concentrated crime enforcement on the segment of the population that commits most violent crimes. The current strategy is, as Commissioner Batts says, “repeat violent offenders, gangs, and illegal guns.”

Since 2011, when the number of homicides in Baltimore dipped below 200, the count increased to 217 in 2012 and now stands at 114 so far this year.

Law enforcement leaders say they view Baltimore’s current crime statistics as indicative of a city where crime spikes occasionally, but is generally under control. Keep in mind that in Baltimore, “under control” appears to equate to roughly 200 homicides per year.

In a city where 300 homicides was once the annual norm, this qualifies as progress. But to me this reduced-but-consistently-high level of death underscores that violent crime in Baltimore is not just a police issue. It’s a community issue.

The reaction by the Baltimore community to our city’s tenacious tendency toward violent crime must extend beyond outrage. Everyone is outraged, but we must convert this outrage into action … together.

We can’t allow ourselves to succumb to the temptation to lay all of this on police and government to “do something.” Thirteen years of law enforcement concentration on our city’s chronic violent offenders has resulted in a 34 percent reduction in homicides.

But that still leaves us with painful questions: Are we, in Baltimore, content with an annual murder rate of around 200? What is it about the fabric of our community that consistently produces this unacceptable level of violence?

Are we really a city that is willing to tolerate violent crime that exceeds levels not tolerated in most other places in the U.S.?

As a community, we need to collectively adopt a “no excuses” attitude about reducing violent crime.

This will require a reality check, introspection, and a serious commitment to action not just by the police department and government, but by community leaders, educators, the business sector and civic advocates.

Everyone who lives and works in Baltimore must engage in crafting and participating in a collective strategy to rid Baltimore of the chronic violence in our midst.

Donald C. Fry is president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee. He is a regular contributor to Center Maryland.

Recent Center Maryland columns by Donald C. Fry:

CEOs: Focus competitiveness policy on taxes, regulations, infrastructure, workforce

Baltimore City needs a reality check on proposed fees, regulations

Gaining traction for life sciences industry growth in Maryland

Maryland’s stormwater fees: a lesson in uneven policy making

Council should opt for ‘win-win’ approach, not ‘magic bullet’ for local hiring effort

Closing the ‘disconnect’ with elected officials over competitiveness