A neighbor in Canton wrote and asked city council candidates to weigh in on crime in Southeast Baltimore and the city as a whole—and what the role of elected officials ought to be in addressing public safety. I prepared this in response, and am posting it here so that it’s easier to read and process than on social media.
There’s at least three pieces, right? Preventing crime. Investigating and prosecuting crime. Reducing crime. And in each one of those, residents, police, and public officials have different roles.
Prevention is the most difficult, and the responsibility that falls most heavily on us. We all know the basic individual steps for securing our homes, walking on the street, or protecting our vehicles. More actively as a community it’s stoop-sitting, block-watching (facilitated by neighborhood-level social media groups focused on crime prevention), and genuine citizens on patrol (walking/biking/driving through the neighborhood calling in criminal activity to the police). Police aid in this by being visible and present, but they can’t be on every corner. There are real limits to all of this. Consider the robbery that started this thread—a guy jumped out of a car with a gun, stole a neighbor’s purse, and jumped back into the vehicle to flee. Had a police officer been present at that location, or the victim happened to have been out with a group of friends, the criminals would simply have driven a few blocks away and found someone else to rob. Even carrying a weapon would not have prevented the attempted robbery, though it could have lead to a range of outcomes–some better than others.
To the extent that some criminals are rational actors who weigh the chances of being caught, and the potential consequences, before going out to commit crime—then effective investigation and prosecution helps to prevent future crime. More significantly, effective investigation and prosecution helps to remove repeat offenders from society for a period of time. Lawmakers, moreso at the state level, can help achieve some crime prevention by increasing the penalties for repeat offenders—not just violent offenders, but the obnoxious people who make a habit of breaking into another home or car the second they get back to the neighborhood from being locked up.
Lawmakers can also achieve real crime prevention by changing our approach to controlled substances. Removing the criminal profit motive from one or more of those substances by making them publicly available prevents the crime of selling those substances as well as some of the violence associated with their sale. It doesn’t prevent the criminal actions of those who are addicted and commit crimes in order to find money to purchase those drugs, however. A shift in the legal status of substances and/or enforcement has to be accompanied by a move toward increased drug treatment.
Investigation & Prosecution
Investigating and prosecuting crimes is the primary responsibility of the police and the justice system behind them. We should expect and demand good police work: vigorous investigation, quick resolution, timely arrests, and enough solid evidence to secure a conviction. The responsibility of city council members is to 1) make sure that the police have the necessary resources; 2) draw the attention of the police to particular problems identified by residents and generally facilitate police-community communication; 3) hold police leadership accountable for the effectiveness of their policing strategies; and 4) make sure that robust systems are in place to hold officers accountable when they undermine community-police relations by their misconduct.
Residents have an important role to play in this as well. Whether victims or observers, our ability to provide the police and prosecutors with solid information during the investigation and throughout the trial—including victim and community impact statements—is critical. Just take murders as one example: the last time our total number of murders was near that of 2015 was in 1993. That year, 72% of murders resulted in an arrest. This year, we’re in the low 30s. The primary driver is that the willingness of community members to work with the police has declined dramatically over those years. The reason for that unwillingness is an entirely separate conversation, but the impact on the ability of our city officials to investigate and prosecute crime is undeniable.
Reducing crime over the long term relies on addressing the root causes of criminal behavior: poverty, inequality of opportunity, addiction, mental health, and the way that systemic racism impacts each of those others. It isn’t fair or rational to expect the police to address those broader issues. To pull out one statistic… a student entering sixth grade at a Baltimore City Public School has only a 7% chance of finishing high school and earning an associates or bachelors degree within six years of high school. Just over 50% will finish high school. That’s not to lay it all at the feet of the school system—but it is to say that every year our city “graduates” about as many young people into a life likely to be marked by poverty and the lure of criminal behavior as we graduate with a high school diploma and at least a decent chance of employment, stability, and social/material success.
Without getting into every single approach, our approaches to addressing these root causes are either ineffective or underfunded—and sometimes both. Job availability, addiction treatment, job training, early childhood education, strong classroom instruction, after school and athletic programs, recreation centers, mentoring programs, school social workers and Community School Coordinators, efforts to ensure affordable and stable housing, a functional juvenile justice system focused on family therapy… all of them are there. They all need to work better. And most of them need more funding.
With the reality of limited funding, though, the choices that we make as a city—and as public officials—loom large. Our understandable quest to address crime investigation and prosecution, with some spillover into crime prevention, has taken up a steadily increasing percentage of our city budget. At the same time, the amount we spend addressing root causes of criminal behavior has decreased as a percentage of our budget. It’s not a knock on our police force—but giving them more money each year doesn’t do a thing about our deeply flawed school system or the lack of family-supporting jobs. Every future new dollar we spend on policing (and we have the 8th largest force in the nation) has less and less of an impact on reducing crime. But that same dollar has more of a long-term crime reduction impact when spent to hire a Community School Coordinator or to provide a therapist to work with the family of a juvenile offender or to provide a young person with their first summer job experience. That’s just the reality. No matter how much we spend, how great our leadership, and what strategies we try, we can’t police our way toward the more equitable, prosperous, healthy, educated, and unified city which will also be significantly lower in crime.