As crime surges in Baltimore, messenger pays the price

June 29, 2013

Last weekend was a bad weekend for Baltimore. Twenty people were shot, and eight killed, in a spasm of violence all too familiar to a city consistently ranked near the top of the nation in per capita killings.

Initial reaction from leaders was muted. On Sunday, as the numbers ticked ever upward, there was no statement from the mayor. There was no statement from the police commissioner. There was just a clinical recitation of the mayhem in a steady stream of police tweets:

“Overnight Shooting: 700 block N. Kenwood Ave 1 Adult Female Fatal, Non-Fatal 3 Adult Females & 1 Adult Male. Homicide Investigating.”

Pressed by reporters, the police department’s chief spokesman, Anthony Guglielmi, finally broke the silence, telling the Baltimore Sun: “This is a little bit of a spike in terms of the weekend, but all in all, we’re pretty satisfied with the way the city is headed, violence-wise.”

Talking about overall crime drops during a crime wave may not be the ideal way to comfort a city on edge. But Guglielmi’s inarticulate misstep — which cost him his job later in the week — is only a symptom of a larger challenge in Baltimore. Year after year, the homicide rate exceeds that of other big cities. Year after year, politicians and police chiefs try to appease the public with the right choice of words. Year after year, the killings continue.

It's no wonder the mayor and the top cop said so little in the early hours of last week’s mayhem. Words aren’t enough, and they can get you in trouble. Police Commissioner Anthony Batts’s predecessor got muzzled for talking too plainly, calling crooks morons and knuckleheads. Years earlier, another commissioner talked too much and was ridiculed as “TV Tom.”

Rhetoric matters, and Batts finally acknowledged as much days after the initial spurt of violence, when he told reporters that the department had done a terrible job talking with the public as the shootings mounted.

Batts promised to flood the city with three times as many officers the next weekend, and he assured the public that top commanders would be available to reassure the city that it wasn’t falling into anarchy.

Other cities make national news when gunmen go wild. New Orleans and Detroit, the former known for corruption and the latter for collapse, get constant attention. But aside from HBO’s blockbuster TV series “The Wire” and the real-life debate it spawned, Baltimore has largely escaped scrutiny on a national scale.

At home, it’s a different story. Discussing homicide is like discussing the stock market ticker. The topic is warped by politics, hashed over in the diner, used and derided by politicians and catalogued like baseball box scores in the local media.

The Baltimore Sun once featured the year’s running tally in a shaded box in each day’s edition — with a notation to show whether the number was trending up or down compared with the previous year. In 1999, Martin O’Malley, then a candidate for mayor, vowed to lower the homicide number to 175 by the year 2002, as if 174 deaths would be a success.

Baltimore set a record in 1993 with 353 killings. The annual numbers have dropped dramatically since then, but so has the city’s population — by 100,000. Despite declines in many categories of crime, Baltimore still ended 2012 as the nation’s sixth deadliest in per-capita homicide.

Batts arrived from California after the city had recorded, in 2011, the fewest homicides in more than 30 years — 197. “The benchmark is now 200,” a retired deputy police commissioner told the Sun at the time. A city council member added, “I think the bar is set.”

Batts failed to meet expectations in his first year, when 217 were killed. He escaped criticism because he arrived with just a few months left in the year. But 2013 belongs to him.

With 116 killings through Thursday, the city has significantly more than it did at the same time last year, when 103 had been killed.

It’s an astounding number given the city’s size (about 620,000). Chicago recorded 146 killings as of last week — just 30 more than Baltimore — in a city of 2.7 million people. Through mid-June, New York (population: 8.3 million) had 145 killings. The District has recorded 39 homicides for 630,000 people.

By Monday, Batts was echoing his spokesman’s optimism regarding overall crime statistics, but he added this necessary caveat: “I’d like to send my condolences to the families of the eight residents of our city that lost their lives.”

By Wednesday, the politicians were demanding action, calling meetings and tossing out words to match those of their angry electorate, who seem to have awakened from their slumber of indifference.

“It’s not outside invaders killing members of our community,” Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (D) said upon returning to her battered city from a conference in Las Vegas. “It’s us killing us.”

Batts has talked about doing more to understand the street culture and anticipate the gunfire before triggers are pulled. He has blamed crime surges on gangs and complained of staff shortages. But for now, bodies are falling in Baltimore, and the only head that’s rolled is that of the person in charge of the message.

Two more people were shot Monday, five on Tuesday, two on Wednesday, six on Thursday and one on Friday. In all, 36 people have been shot in a week of violence.

The death toll climbed to 14.

Peter Hermann covers the D.C. police for The Post. Previously, he covered crime for the Baltimore Sun for more than a decade.

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