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  • Writer's pictureJustine Barron

#Mediawatch: Murder Obsessed

Photographer Maggie Ybarra on the scene (credit: Christina Tkacik, Baltimore Sun)

In a few days in mid-July, Baltimore Twitter was talking about how the murders went down during a heat wave, then went back up; how July's murder rate compared to previous Julys; what the Commissioner's crime plan was and whether it would help lower the murder rate; and a shootout at a methadone clinic and how that divided the city by those who get what's really going on here and those who remain oblivious.

It was a normal, murder-obsessed week in Baltimore news.

Murder is no joke, and most people are not joking when they have these conversations. Baltimore has the highest murder rate among large U.S. cities.

That aside, I want to address how the conversation about Baltimore's murder rate gets framed often. There's a subtle narrative that gets repeated, finds space in mainstream reporting, and drives policy. I think it is a misdirected and dangerous narrative. Speaking against it, however, leaves one vulnerable to accusations of not caring.

This narrative doesn't always take the same form, but here are its overall premises, which I want to challenge:

1. That the murder rate in Baltimore is the major sign of the shape the city is in generally. If the murder rate were lower, that would be a sign that things were improving.

2. That the high number of murders now is a cause of poor policing and could be fixed by better policing.

2. That things in Baltimore were getting better, starting around 2008, until everything fell apart in 2015 (what I call the "golden age myth").

3. That these concerns are expressed on behalf of the people who are most affected by murder in Baltimore, those living in the "Black Butterfly."

These positions find their purest expression in the writings and tweets of Baltimore resident and journalist Alec MacGillis. The New York Times, in partnership with Pro Publica, published an article by MacGillis in March that laid out this world-view, called "The Tragedy of Baltimore."

The article describes how Baltimore experienced an "upswing" during 2008-14. Since 2015, MacGillis writes,"Baltimore, by most standards, became a worse place." The article is sourced in part by police leaders that were in charge during that previous era, including Tony Barksdale, former Deputy Commissioner.

This past week, MacGinnis cited the shooting at the methadone clinic and called for "honesty" and "candor" in our shared acceptance of Baltimore's terrible state. He also admitted that he is just not concerned with the problem but also what he thinks is the solution:

A similar narrative about Baltimore murder has appeared in other national media in the last few years, including a USA Today article from last July. It quoted Barksdale and Peter Moskos, a New York-based Professor of Criminal Justice who writes about Baltimore crime a lot in these same terms.

The "Baltimore murder narrative," if you will, shows up all over the place. It shows up in how politicians fixate on homicide numbers, which is how BPD's budget and powers ballooned under former Mayor Catherine Pugh. It shows up in the recycling of some leaders from the alleged golden age back into power.

It shows up in the way that some local reporters and citizens track the number of shooting and murders as notable in itself. ("We had no/five murders this weekend!")

Meanwhile, here are some of the numbers that are not being tracked in Baltimore as commonly as shootings and homicides: homelessness, rape, deaths due to medical neglect, wrongful convictions, and so on.

Murder and crime are rarefied discussions in Baltimore. As evidence, a few people commented, without irony, that the recent heat wave led to fewer murders. How many people are being killed by preventable heat exhaustion or dehydration during a heatwave? Not all murders happen the same way.

Now, I wish to point out what is missing or logically flawed in the dominant narrative about Baltimore murder:

Correlation is Not Causation

The Baltimore murder narrative follows logically, it seems, from some well-known statistics:

Baltimore murders hit an historic low in 2011, under then Commissioner Frederick Bealefeld. The apparent miracle was that Bealefeld had abandoned the "zero tolerance" policies of the 2000s and cut annual arrests, from about 100,000 to around 45,000 by 2011. Still, he managed to lower violent crime. Then, homicide numbers jumped up in 2015 and have stayed over 300 since.

Moskos has made the point that social factors like poverty could not be the only cause, given that the jump seem to have happened overnight:

Moskos ties the sudden surge in violence to the uprising, calling it the "Freddie Gray effect," a play on the "Ferguson effect." BPD cut down dramatically on "proactive enforcement" after the uprising, to around 25,000 arrests. That is documented. Moskos and others blame decreased enforcement on poor police leadership decisions and the subsequent Consent Decree

There's an inherent contradiction in the logic here: Enforcement was cut in half twice - first around 2010 and then around 2015. The first time, murder dropped; the second time, it rose. So enforcement can't be tied to homicides, unless 45,000 arrests a year is some kind of a magic number.

It's certainly possible that the correlation has to do with the quality of arrests happening before 2015, not the quantity. But what changed? Batts took office in September 2012; homicide didn't go up at all until 2015.

Truly, we don't know why violent crime rose dramatically in April 2015. Nothing specifically ties it to policing. Batts said that drugs flooded the market. The people who probably know best are those involved in shooting or being shot at. The rest is guesswork.

Crime Did Not Drop That Much During the "Golden Age"

"To understand how things in Baltimore have gotten so bad, you need to first understand how, not so long ago, they got better," MacGillis wrote, referring to that period between 2008 to 2014.

What happened to the homicide rate in 2015 is notable, but it cannot be applied retroactively to the years before. There was a drop in crime around 2008 but it wasn't as significant or unprecedented as MacGillis suggests. The average number of homicides during 2008-2014 was 221; the average number from the seven year period before was 268. That's a decrease of 17%.

Moreover, the miracle year of 2011 is an outlier, a result possibly of a blizzard at the beginning of that year. Overall, the decrease in homicides beginning in 2008 was not groundbreaking. The graph above shows that homicides simply returned to 1980s levels.

Here is what a significant, sustainable drop in crime looks like:

NYC experienced a drop in the number of homicides by nearly 2,000 while its population grew by over a million. That drop lasted more than twenty years. NYC's homicide rate has consistently stayed, even in its worse year, at .003% or lower of population. Baltimore's has ranged from about .035%, at best, to .05%. Our "better" is still among the country's worst.

I attended a Real News panel on murder last month that included young leaders from Ceasefire and other community-based organizations, who live and work in affected communities. I asked them directly if they perceived crime to have been better before 2015, when there weren't 300+ murders a year. They answered no. They were also offended by the implication that anyone was using more than 200 murders a year as a case study in things being "better."

Murder Stats are Not Gospel

Crime stats are not reality. Moskos has written about how they get juked by police leaders that want them to appear lower: "When it comes to crime stats, he wrote, "I only really trust homicides." It's hard to hide the bodies, right?

It's hard, but it's not impossible. According a very disgruntled former BPD homicide detective (still speaking off the record), Bealefeld was a monster about stats. He reduced homicides, on paper, but, under his leadership, BPD also pushed detectives to get the ME to classify homicides that couldn't be solved as suicides, natural deaths, or undetermined.

It would take some more research to back this source's claims up, but it doesn't seem unlikely. Just look at how much a seventeen or so percentage dip in homicide can affect public perception and policy.

GTTF: The Elephant in its Room

Under Bealefeld and Barksdale, plainclothes police squad, like the Violent Crime Impact Section (VCIS), expanded. During this time, homicides also decreased, suggesting to many that the model worked.

The elephant in the room is the Gun Trace Task Force (GTTF), whose officers became unchecked criminals and brutalizers in these squads. Their behavior was no secret: the Sun had reported in 2014 on how many settlements had been paid on behalf of VCIS and other officers.

Reporter Stephen Janis, who covered crime and policing on the streets during that time described it to me as "one of the darkest periods in BPD history," in terms of police brutality. He referred to plainclothes squads as an effort to "put zero tolerance in a bottle."

We learned during the GTTF trials that Sergeant Wayne Jenkins obtained looted drugs from pharmacies in the uprising, and maybe even before. One would hope that this information might influence perspectives about why and how crime shot up in 2015. But the Baltimore murder narrative does not take police corruption seriously.

This was most absurdly apparent in a 2018 Johns Hopkins Gun Policy Center study on crime in Baltimore. The report concluded that VCIS was the most effective way for Baltimore to reduce violent crime. The study was published just days before the GTTF trials started. It was also steered by an advisory group of BPD leaders, including one that was named as a GTTF conspirator in court. MacGillis cited this study in support of his thesis:

A 2018 study by Johns Hopkins found that the new approach to policing was the city’s most effective in recent years. “Baltimore had it going on,” Barksdale told me.

The Police-as-Prevention Fallacy

There is a cottage industry around creating new and better police models to fight crime. Put simply, there's no solid evidence that constitutional policing models have contributed to any significant, sustainable reduction in urban crime. I have read everything I could on the subject. Policing can have some impact on crime, but not significantly for the long-term.

There are only two factors that have been shown to contribute to a significant reduction in crime in cities for any sustained period of time:

1. Gentrification

2. Mass incarceration (unconstitutional policing)

If your goals require such terrible approaches, then maybe you need to revisit your goals.

Mass incarceration or unconstitutional policing can reduce homicide, but not sustainably. If you lock up and brutalize a generation of black men unfairly, you will see less crime in the short-term. In the long-term, you've created fatherless families, career criminals, and communities at war instead of in cooperation with police.

Mass incarceration works with gentrification to reduce crime. The mass incarceration of low-income black residents can give the impression of a safer community (for the people who are not being incarcerated). This leads to more middle class and white people moving into the city, which raises housing costs. This leads to poor people moving out, less drug traffic, and a reduction in violent crime.

Of course, gentrification is not good for the communities most affected by violence. When people are driven out of their homes, they are at higher risk of homelessness, criminality, homicide, and other preventable death.

Unfortunately, the Baltimore murder narrative doesn't have a problem with gentrification. When MacGillis describes an "upswing" in Baltimore, pre-2015, he cites the growth of Hopkins and the building of apartments downtown. If mass gentrification comes to Baltimore, will the people counting homicides continue tracking the outcomes of families driven out of the city?

Gentrification and mass incarceration are not the only solutions to violent crime. They're the only ones that have been given a chance in our country. The former Mayor of Richmond, California spoke at the Real News panel about how public investment in jobs and programs for high-risk youth helped reduce violent crime. She was voted out after two terms.

From history and the world around us, we know two other ways that would easily reduce violent crime in the U.S. - legalizing drugs and banning guns. In the absence of a willingness to follow the world's example, we just get more policing.


The members on the Real News panel made it very clear that policing was not the cause of homicide and that police solutions were not needed to address the epidemic. Letrice Gant from Baltimore Ceasefire presented a clear and sophisticated take on the homicide issue. She discussed how Baltimore youth have a conflict resolution problem that needs to be addressed by the community. She talked about how hopelessness is ingrained due to lack of opportunity. She talked about the PTSD suffered by kids exposed to violence regularly.

She even talked about how homicides can be mapped on top of liquor stores, particularly liquor stores that hang a lot of signs. She discussed Ceasefire's losing battle against the politicians and the liquor board.

This was information that journalists and policy makers need but aren't hearing. Ceasefire and other community programs were reduced to punchlines in all of the stories and studies listed above for not showing fast enough results.


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