This weekend, the Baltimore Sun and New York Times both had articles on the spike in violence in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray in police custody, the civil unrest, and eventually the arrest and indictment of six police officers.
The culprit is clear: both articles cited the fact that, as the crime rate surged, the number of people arrested declined.
The Baltimore Sun on Sunday reported, “Baltimore police arrested fewer people in May than in any month for at least three years, despite a surge in homicides and shootings across the city — triggering safety concerns among residents.
“Several neighborhoods saw declines of more than 90 percent from April to May, while arrests in the West Baltimore area where Freddie Gray was arrested dropped by more than half during the same period, according to a Baltimore Sun analysis of police data. Citywide, arrests declined 43 percent from April to May,” the paper wrote.
The Baltimore paper reports that the dramatic decline, which has been citywide, “has sparked a debate about police pulling back on enforcement efforts,” and came following the death of Freddie Gray and the subsequent prosecution of six officers.
According to city leaders and police union officials, “Officers have been hesitant to make arrests since the rioting that followed Gray’s funeral, union and police department officials have said. Officers also have been surrounded by camera-wielding residents recording their every move, according to the police commissioner. And since Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby filed the criminal charges in Gray’s death, many officers are afraid that they risk being charged with crimes for trying to do their jobs, union leaders say.”
However, many are not convinced that the police are actually genuinely fearful, but rather they are angry.
Homicides and shootings have spiked. There were 42 in Baltimore in May, the largest amount in a single month since 1990. There have been 237 shootings this year, an 84 percent jump over last year at this time.
At the same time, “arrests have plummeted in neighborhoods across the city.” The paper reports, “Some of the starkest declines took place in southwest neighborhoods: Only one arrest each was made in May in the Franklin Square and Mill Hill communities, a 95 percent decline over April arrests.”
Many have jumped on the notion of a “Ferguson Effect” – depicting that the protests themselves have created a crime wave. Analysis of St. Louis crime data, that the Vanguard reported on Tuesday, suggests that crime rates in St. Louis rose long before Ferguson occurred.
However, something else is happening in Baltimore and elsewhere.
As the New York Times reported this weekend, “Around the nation, communities and police departments are struggling to adapt to an era of heightened scrutiny, when every stop can be recorded on a cellphone.”
But, “residents, clergy members and neighborhood leaders say the past six weeks have made another reality clear: that as much as some officers regularly humiliated and infuriated many who live here, angering gang members and solid citizens alike, the solution has to be better policing, not a diminished police presence.”
The Times writes, “At the time of her announcement, Ms. Mosby’s charges were seen as calming the city. But they enraged the police rank and file, who pulled back. The number of arrests plunged, and the murder rate doubled in a month. The reduced police presence gave criminals space to operate, according to community leaders and some law enforcement officials.”
The Times continues, “The soaring violence has made Baltimore a battleground for political arguments about whether a backlash against police tactics has led to more killings in big cities like New York, St. Louis and Chicago, and whether “de-policing,” as academics call it, can cause crime to rise.”
However, the Times argues, “Still, the speed and severity of the police pullback here appear unlike anything that has happened in other major cities. And rather than a clear test case, Baltimore is a reminder of how complicated policing issues are and how hard it can be to draw solid conclusions from a month or two of crime and police response.”
The Baltimore paper notes that, over the last two years, “arrests have been in a gradual decline across Baltimore, The Sun’s analysis shows. In 2013, there were 3,522 arrests per month, and in 2014, 3,302 arrests per month. From January to April this year — even before the big drop in May — there were 2,641 arrests per month.”
Some say “that trend could have a silver lining.” Residents complain that they have “lost all respect for the police” because of harassment. They argue, “If police want respect from the community, they need to first respect residents.” Others argue, “Fewer overall arrests could also mean fewer bad arrests, and fewer young black men getting a criminal record.”
Across the country complaints about policies like “stop and frisk” and variants of the “Broken Window” policing have produced animosity in the communities where the police are needed the most to fight crime.
There are complaints that the war on drugs has produced a new underclass of largely black males that are trapped in the cycle of crime and poverty, and post-sentencing provisions keep them there.
There are complaints about excessive force disproportionately directed toward young men of color.
At the same time, there is evidence that the crime wave, at least in Baltimore, is due to police – angry, perhaps with hurt feelings – refusing to do their job.
As the Sacramento Bee put it in early May, the “police need to get tough enough for transparency.” That is really what this all about – all or nothing solutions are not going to work. While there are questions about how the police should go about their business, there are few people that question that we need police to go about their business in a thorough, thoughtful and professional manner.
—David M. Greenwald reporting