Baltimore has set a new per-capita homicide record as gunmen killed for drugs, cash, payback – or no apparent reason at all.
A surge of homicides in the starkly divided city resulted in 343 killings in 2017, bringing the annual homicide rate to its highest ever – roughly 56 killings per 100,000 people. Baltimore, which has shrunk over decades, currently has about 615,000 inhabitants.
“Not only is it disheartening, it’s painful,” Mayor Catherine Pugh told The Associated Press during the final days of 2017, her first year in office.
The main reasons are the subject of endless interpretation. Some attribute the increase to more illegal guns, the fallout of the opioid epidemic, or systemic failures like unequal justice and a scarcity of decent opportunities for many citizens. The tourism-focused Inner Harbor and prosperous neighborhoods such as Canton and Mount Vernon are a world away from large sections of the city hobbled by generational poverty.
Others blame police, accusing them of taking a hands-off approach to fighting crime since six officers were charged in connection with the 2015 death of Freddie Gray, a black man whose fatal spinal cord injury in police custody triggered massive protests that year and the city’s worst riots in decades.
“The conventional wisdom, or widely agreed upon speculation, suggests that?the great increase in murders is happening partly because the police have withdrawn from aggressively addressing crime in the city’s many poor, crime-ridden neighborhoods,” said Donald Norris, professor emeritus of public policy at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.
Even as arrests have declined to their lowest level in years, police say their officers are working hard in a tough environment. They note the overwhelming majority of Baltimore’s crime has long been linked to gangs, drugs and illegal guns.
“The vast majority of our kids and residents of this city aren’t into criminal activity like this. It’s that same revolving group of bad guys that are wreaking havoc for people’s families,” said T.J. Smith, the chief police spokesman whose own younger brother was the city’s 173rd homicide victim in 2017.