The wrong kind of fireworks at the Inner Harbor

Our view: Two acts of violence mar holiday, but it's also wrong to use isolated incidents to draw conclusions about the state of crime in Baltimore

July 05, 2011

The Independence Day festivities in the Inner Harbor were marred by two incidents of violence Monday night, the fatal stabbing of a 26-year-old man after an argument and the wounding of a 4-year-old boy by an apparent stray bullet. But before people start condemning Baltimore as unsafe and irredeemable, some caution — and perhaps context — is in order.

That's not in any way to excuse these reprehensible actions. The stabbing victim — Joseph Calo, 26, of Opelika, Ala. — couldn't have merited his fate in the midst of what was supposed to be a joyful celebration of this nation’s founding. The youngster may have been injured by that most outrageous and blockheaded of urban July Fourth traditions, the random firing of guns into the air.that the stabbing victim — Joseph Calo, 26, of Opelika, Ala. — did anything to merit his fate in the midst of what was supposed to be a joyful celebration of this nation's founding. The youngster may have been injured by that most outrageous and blockheaded of urban July Fourth traditions, the random firing of guns into the air.

As we've observed many times in the past, the safety of the Inner Harbor must be a top priority for City Hall, as Baltimore's lucrative hospitality and tourism industries turn on that record — and the public's perception of that record. To the city police department's credit, officers were out in full force Monday, but there were also twice as many visitors on hand to witness the fireworks display compared to last year's crowds.

The police do not have mind readers on the payroll. They can be deployed and vigilant, but the very nature of violent crime is that it can be swift and sudden and often impossible to prevent. If there is good news from Monday's attack, it is that police appear to have a lead and photographic evidence that could prove crucial in prosecuting the attacker.

But what is also troubling is how quickly the general public can view these random incidents and weave them into a narrative that concludes Baltimore is unsafe. Two crimes committed in the midst of a huge public celebration do not provide the evidence to determine much of anything about Baltimore, the Inner Harbor, the state of crime or the effectiveness of police.

That is generally true of any community where crimes take place. Over the weekend, there was a stabbing during an attempted robbery in Dundalk, a fatal beating in Gaithersburg, and an assault and abduction in Sykesville. That doesn't make the suburbs of Baltimore, Montgomery or Carroll counties unfit for human habitation.

Make no mistake, Baltimore experiences more murders each year then other jurisdictions in this state and remains one of the most violent cities in the nation. That is a product of many circumstances, not the least of which are the drug trade, concentrated poverty, dysfunctional homes, struggling schools and a lack of economic opportunities. But by most any measure, things are getting better, not worse, on the crime front.

As of July 4, the city's murder tally stood at 104, which is exactly the total Baltimore had one year ago. In 2010, Baltimore had 223 homicides which was down from the previous year, far below the 300-plus levels of the 1990s, and also greatly reduced from the 282 recorded in 2007, the year Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III took over the police department.

Any reasonable person must conclude that Mr. Bealefeld has been steering Baltimore on an appropriate course. He has taken the city away from arresting everything that moves (the much-discredited zero-tolerance approach) and toward targeting violent crimes and making quality cases. In the process, he has helped reduce the city's homicide numbers to 20-year lows.

Such statistics are a far better barometer of the city's crime situation than some random incidents, no matter how high-profile the event or location. That's not to ignore the suffering of these victims or their friends and family. But it is not "one big Dodge City," or "dying," or any of the other invectives hurled around cyberspace the last 24 hours. The perception of Baltimore as unsafe was built up over decades, and the unfortunate truth is that the news of a pair of crimes like those at the Inner Harbor on Monday easily drowns out the quantifiable evidence of progress.

We would be the last to say that 200-plus murders a year is acceptable, but it does the anti-crime effort no good for people to believe violence is getting worse when the reverse is true. Those things that could drive the rate down further — a reversal of population loss, a surging city real estate market, increased tourism and investment — are put at risk by irresponsible fear-mongering.

Perception can sometimes be reality. The last thing city leaders need is for the facts to be ignored. The challenge of making Baltimore safe and sound is difficult enough without having to fight an unfair public relations war on top of it all.

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