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The real question about crime in Baltimore

P. Kenneth Burns

A group of central West Baltimore residents gathered near Triangle Park Wednesday night to march against the surge of violence in their neighborhood and the city at large.

“Our deal is to show that we are the majority of this community and we won’t let a small percentage of violent individuals define what we are in Central West Baltimore,” said Ray Kelly with the No Boundaries Coalition; one of the march organizers.

Kelly said the organizers wanted to show that law abiding citizens outnumber those who commit violent crime.

The marchers stepped off from St. Peter Claver Catholic Church on North Fremont Avenue, led by a drum line, moved along Laurens Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, then back to the church

The march comes after 42 people were killed in Baltimore City through Feb. 8 and after Mayor Catherine Pugh and Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said in separate news conferences – on the same day – that Baltimoreans need to have some tough conversations about violent crime in their city.

The mayor said the number of homicides, particularly among African-Americans, begs for a conversation.

“I spoke to a number of our ministerial community last night and I said I got to bring you all together,” she said.  “We got to come to some type of community solution that gets people understanding the value of life.”

Later, a frustrated Commissioner Davis, responding to community concerns about crime, called for a conversation about what he termed the “apathetic criminal justice system.”

“Quite frankly, our criminal justice system creates repeat offenders; creates them,” Davis said.  “The police make arrests, the prosecutors gain convictions and for whatever the consequence associated with that arrest or that conviction is not significant enough to alter that young person’s behavior.  So what do they do? They go out and do it again, and again and again.”

Jeffrey Ian Ross, a criminologist with the University of Baltimore, says those are both good conversations to have.  But there are two questions that should be asked first in Baltimore’s crime fight.

“What do citizens of Baltimore believe is the worst types of crime that exist in the city,” he proposed.  “How do they think it should be solved?”

Ross says it’s important to get a handle on what the community believes is the pressing crime problems.

“Do they believe that homicide is the most important problem or is it congregating on corners; or is it both,” he asked. “That’s an important piece of data.”

On the streets of Baltimore, the talk is about homicides.  It was a campaign issue in last year’s city election.  And the city recently had two of the deadliest years in decades; 342 people killed in 2015, 318 people killed in 2016.

Susan Burke and Robin Boston, West Baltimore residents who attended the march, both expressed concerns about homicides.

“Most of the people that were murdered are under 30,” said Boston who called the murders “useless, senseless violence.”

“Just imagine what all of those young people could do in the right circumstances and instead they’re gunned down at an early age,” Burke added.  “It’s a tragedy every day.”

Criminologist Ross says while other violent crimes occur in the city, the homicide rate – among the worst in the nation – needs to be addressed.

“It’s not acceptable,” he said. “There needs to be a concerted effort to reduce the amount of homicides.

Bringing people to the table

How do you get people to talk about tough topics?

Mayor Pugh said she would ask them.

“I can’t drag them; I can ask them,” she said.  “There’s not anybody that I’ve asked to come to the table that hasn’t.”

The mayor held a meeting last week at City Hall that included business leaders, community members and leaders of Catholic Protestant, Islamic and Jewish faiths.

The mayor tweeted that her meeting “serves to improve relationship between the police department & community, the community & the police & culture in our city.”

Commissioner Davis was there as well.  A week before the meeting he gave his vote of confidence that the mayor can bring people in to help fight crime.

“There’s no better leader than Mayor Pugh to bring all those different folks to the table,” Davis said.

He said the mayor assured him representatives from city agencies will be attend the weekly CrimeStat meetings.

More conversations about crime could be forthcoming, including one about fighting crime in a Constitutional manner if U.S. District Judge James Bredar signs off on a consent decree on police reform between the city and the U.S. Justice Department.