What's Causing Baltimore's Crime Spike?
As activists blame cops, police blame prosecutors, and the commissioner blames drugs, citizens are left to deal with the consequences.
Baltimore residents seem to be facing an impossible dilemma: They can have abusive policing, or hardly any at all.
The first option was abundantly well-documented in the days after Freddie Gray’s death: the history of rough rides and brutality; the repeated inattention to emergencies; the unwise tactical decisions. Since the city exploded, then calmed down, residents are starting to get a feel for their other choice.
As The Baltimore Sun noted over the weekend, May saw the most murders in any month in Charm City since 1972. Non-lethal shootings have gone up sharply as well. But arrests are down across the city—there were 1,177 arrests in May 2015, as compared to 3,801 in May 2014. The idea that lower arrests are ipso facto a bad thing should not go unchallenged: Critics of broken-windows style policing say that there have been too many arrests for petty or irrelevant crimes. Such overly aggressive policing has driven a wedge between the community and the cops. Freddie Gray was almost certainly a victim of excessive arrests—he was detained only for running away from police, and the the prosecutor and officers differ on whether the knife they found in his pocket once he was handcuffed was legal or not.
But Baltimoreans in places like Gray’s neighborhood of Sandtown didn’t say they wanted no policing. NPR talked to West Baltimoreans who complained that calls they placed to 911 to complain about crimes have gone without any response—sometimes dozens of them.
Yet no one can pinpoint what exactly is behind the spike in crime and dive in arrests. Those residents and some civil-rights advocates think the police are intentionally backing off of enforcing crimes—like going on a strike, but not as radical. A slowdown would be to both punish citizens for lashing out against the police and also to create a sort of cautionary statement: This is what your streets will look like without cops. Is that really what you want?
A notable example of a police slowdown came in New York City early in the year, when cops—upset at Mayor Bill de Blasio’s implication of racism in policing—basically stopped arresting people. But the NYPD slowdown was notably different in several respects. First, and perhaps most importantly, the move was a tremendous propaganda failure. Crime actually fell during the slowdown, reducing arrests actually played into the mayor’s strategy, and public opinion swung against the police. The spike in crime in Baltimore looks very different. Second, NYPD officers were a little more open about what was happening. While no union declared a slowdown, the police commissioner acknowledged that’s what was going on and cracked down on it.
In Baltimore, neither the Fraternal Order of Police nor Police Commissioner Anthony Batts say there’s a slowdown. That’s notable because Batts and the FOP have, by and large, been at each others’ throats since the Gray protests.