We're No. 5: Baltimore's homicide rate improves, but not enough

May 24, 2011

The latest FBI crime statistics reports are out, and Baltimore, despite its lowest homicide rate since the 1980s, is still the fifth deadliest city in the nation, and the seventh most dangerous in terms of overall violent crime. It's hard to know what to make of this. Thanks in part to the statistics-driven policing strategies we imported from New York, and in part to a morbid municipal fascination with the daily body count, Baltimore tends to closely monitor the ups and downs of crime and to link the trend to the effectiveness of the police chief or mayor. But if the crime drop in Baltimore is merely mirrored by the crime drops elsewhere, does that mean that whether we're doing mass arrests or community policing or going after bad guys with guns doesn't really matter? If crime is down here but Baltimore remains one of the most dangerous cities in America, does that make the cause, in some sense, hopeless?

There can be little doubt that the quality of Baltimore's police leadership has made a difference on a year-to-year basis; the sudden turnaround in the crime stats when Ed Norris took over the department more than a decade ago, or when Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III replaced Leonard Hamm in 2007, leaves little doubt of that.

But taking the long view, it's equally clear that Baltimore didn't become so violent simply because of a sub-par police chief or two. As much as our civic leaders have complained about "The Wire" giving Baltimore a bad name, the TV show didn't seek to neatly lay the blame for crime on the bureaucracy at police headquarters or the meddling of an ambitious mayor. Rather, it quite rightly portrayed crime here (as it would have if the series had been based in any other city) as the product of complex interactions between flawed institutions, the increasingly unequal distribution of wealth, economic hopelessness, individual choice and sheer chance.

Likewise, in the real world it's clear that the difference between 300 homicides a year and 225 isn't just a question of police tactics. It is no coincidence that Baltimore's crime rates have gone down at the same time that its student test scores have gone up; schools chief Andres Alonso -- and everyone else who works to strengthen the community broadly -- may have as much to do with the drop in violence as Commissioner Bealefeld.

What makes this year's FBI report baffling on a national scale is that crime actually declined significantly at a time of economic distress. Typically, criminologists assume that when the economy goes bad, crime goes up, both because individuals become more desperate and because the social bonds of community become frayed. But other factors are evidently at work. The aging population may well play a role, as crimes are typically committed by the young. But in Baltimore at least, the population of people between the ages of 15 and 30 actually increased slightly during the last decade at a time when the overall population declined.

We may never have a simple explanation for what is driving the lower crime rates nationwide, just as we in Baltimore are left to baffle at the contradictions of our own situation. Crime is down, yet high. We are making gains but standing still. In the end, the question of whether we are a safe city is a matter of perception. During Baltimore's decade of 300-plus murders a year, the prospect of crime rates as low as any since the 1970s would have sounded great. Likewise, it is hard to square the fretting in New York City over a jump of 65 murders between 2009 and 2010 with the fact that the total number of homicides there is less than a quarter of what it was in 1990.

And so the appropriate response to the new FBI numbers is neither to cheer our gains nor despair in our poor ranking but to continue the slow and difficult work of building a stronger community filled with greater opportunity for all. That, ultimately, is the only path toward making Baltimore a city that is safe, not just safer.

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