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.

Jim Bourg / Reuters

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.

Batts has several explanations for what’s happening. One is a flood of prescription drugs on the street, being used for recreational purposes, that were looted from pharmacies during the April rioting. "There's enough narcotics on the streets of Baltimore to keep it intoxicated for a year," Batts said Wednesday. "That amount of drugs has thrown off the balance on the streets of Baltimore." (This is, City Paper notes, a bit exaggerated.) Batts also said that officers have been patrolling in pairs rather than the normal solo beats, which effectively halves the number of patrols.

The FOP offers a bleaker, though related, rationale for the decrease in arrests: Officers are afraid, its leader says. On the one hand, they’re beset by hostile citizens who carefully monitor every arrest, crowding around officers who are just trying to do their jobs and capturing the detentions on camera, lest they turn into another Freddie Gray situation. On the other hand, police are also afraid a prosecutor will haul them in front of a jury. After Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby charged six of their comrades with a range of offenses in Freddie Gray’s death, they say that they don’t know when they might be charged with a crime, just for doing their jobs.

Of these, the second concern seems more potent. "The criminals are taking advantage of the situation in Baltimore since the unrest," said local FOP President Gene Ryan. "Criminals feel empowered now. There is no respect. Police are under siege in every quarter. They are more afraid of going to jail for doing their jobs properly than they are of getting shot on duty."

How seriously can that charge be taken? The FOP has been harshly critical of Mosby since she announced her intention to charge the officers. But it’s not as if there’s been a spate of prosecutions. The prosecutor has brought charges against six officers in one very specific case—a case in which a suspect was put in a police van alive and exited it less than an hour later, unable to breathe and near death. When officers cite the fear of prosecution, they risk sending the message that they can’t do their job of keeping Baltimore safe without abusing citizens and opening themselves to charges.

Batts’s solution to the crime spike has been to ask for more assistance from the federal government. The Justice Department is already investigating the Baltimore Police Department, at its leaders’ request, and Batts is asking for more help from federal law-enforcement agents to tamp down violence.

A widely read May 29 column by Heather Mac Donald tried to place Baltimore’s crime surge in a national context. Citing increases in crime in other cities across the nation, Mac Donald argues that what we’re witnessing is a “Ferguson effect,” as police get nervous about enforcing laws and criminals feel more leeway to, well, do some crimes. There are a couple of issues with Mac Donald’s thesis. One is that crime always tends to increase as the weather gets warmer. As Jason Linkins notes, Mac Donald also does some mixing and matching of numbers, and her year-over-year totals can skip over the fact that violent crime nationwide remains at historical lows. She may be right, but it’s too soon to draw real conclusions about trends in crime, much less their causes.

More disturbing, though, is the way that Mac Donald frames her conclusions. The wave of reforms pushed by politicians from de Blasio to former Attorney General Eric Holder, she argues, may be producing unintended consequences: “If these decriminalization and deincarceration policies backfire, the people most harmed will be their supposed beneficiaries: blacks, since they are disproportionately victimized by crime.”

Mac Donald is right about who the victims are likely to be. But can it really be that citizens have to choose between living with rampant crime, or accepting racially slanted policing that arrests, incarcerates, and marks with a criminal record a disproportionate share of African Americans? That’s no choice at all.