No Safety In Silence

Our View: A Gunman Opens Fire At A Cookout In East Baltimore And Injures 12

Police Can Increase Patrols, But The Community Must Decide To Reject The Violence

July 29, 2009

The scene was horrific - in the middle of an East Baltimore cookout, an event to commemorate the death of a young man killed in the drug trade, gunmen opened fire indiscriminately into the crowd, mowing down men, women, children, anyone who got in the way. A dozen people were hit by bullets before the attackers fled.

That was Memorial Day, 2001. But move the scene to a backyard perhaps a mile away and change a few details, and you've got exactly what happened Sunday night on Ashland Avenue. This time, the dozen people shot at the party - another "gone but not forgotten" memorial for two people murdered by a rival drug gang a year before - included a 2-year-old girl and a pregnant woman. A half-dozen more people were shot in East Baltimore that night, at least three of them in incidents police believe are related to the cookout shooting. Last time, police believed the gunfire was an attempt to silence witnesses; this time, they think it might be related to a high-profile kidnapping last summer, which in turn was tied to a war between rival drug gangs and a series of murders.

The shooting eight years ago was, at the time, the worst single act of violence anyone could remember in this violent city. Police increased patrols in the neighborhood to ward off retaliatory violence. A minister led a march and prayer vigil at the site of the shooting. Civic leaders said it was a wake-up call and insisted on more police and more enforcement in the fight against the drug trade.

Since then, we've had the firebombing of the Dawson family's home in the Oliver neighborhood, killing seven - payback by drug dealers for a woman who had the guts to call the police. We've had the Stop Snitching DVD, a distressing underground cultural phenomenon that made explicit the unspoken code of the streets. We've had a boy shot to death trying to deliver grapefruit to an elderly neighbor and a girl struck in the head by a bullet meant for someone else.

Since 2001, we've had two mayors, four police chiefs and who knows how many crime-fighting strategies. Murders have gone up and gone down, but if a gunman is still willing to open fire into a crowd at a cookout, not knowing or caring who his bullets hit, has anything really changed?

Mayor Sheila Dixon sounded weary when she talked about Sunday's violence. "You know, standing on a corner and having a candlelight vigil, that's fine and good," she said at a news conference. "But what happens now to those families in the midst of what happened? What are they going to do for those children so they don't get exposed?"

Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III said the usual things about increasing patrols in the area, but he sounded fed up, too, noting that his officers should have known about the cookout and been prepared. "We should be evaluating our connections to this community so we have good information about community events and whether there are memorials or large cookouts," Mr. Bealefeld said. "We're going to hold people accountable for that and push harder to make sure we have coverage."

Certainly Mr. Bealefeld is right that his officers need better connections to the community so they're able to spot trouble before it starts. But that relationship is a two-way street. The responsibility lies just as much on the innocent people who live in Baltimore's violence-ravaged communities as it does on the police. Fear and the "stop snitching" code may keep people from talking. But think about this: Someone just walked into a backyard cookout and opened fire indiscriminately, wounding a pregnant woman and a 2-year-old girl. No code of honor applies to a person who would do something like that, and no amount of silence guarantees safety when that kind of violence is allowed to take place.

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