Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Baltimore's murder rate

All year I have avoided the topic, because it isn't part of my expertise and it isn't urban design. Yet, can one write about Baltimore without its murder rate?

The original function of police is to protect the citizen from those who don't follow the rules and make fellow citizens their prey. (An older German word for police is Schutzmann or "protection man"). Anyone, rich or poor needs police once in a while, without police there is no safe and secure living and many Baltimore citizens have called on the police to give them protection, especially in the poorest communities. Police cannot be effective without the community and few communities never need police.
Police as a friend of the community

But if police becomes something like an occupying force, if there is too much police or they wield too much power or have too little oversight, the protection function turns into one of oppression in which upstanding citizens become the objects of police action just as much as criminals. (Especially Germans have rich experience with that).

We know that the tendency of police to abuse their power is most severely felt by minorities and those who are most are most disadvantaged since it makes them most vulnerable. We know that police abuse has been common in disinvested African American communities across America for a while but now nobody can deny it any longer with new video evidence pouring in every week.

But we also know abuse doesn't stop at vulnerable minorities. Just as Oskar Niemöller observed during the beginning of the Nazi oppression, unchecked abuse has the tendency to spread. I know firsthand from small comparably insignificant experiences. For example when I honked at a police officer who with his vehicle had cut into my lane when turning. I got stopped and because I insisted initially on being right, additional squad cars were called in, and hadn't it been for my then highschool daughter who implored me to be docile and obedient, so she would get to BSA on time, I may have been arrested right there on MLK. The officer had the power and I had almost none. (I did get a citation). Another time when a police car with sirens blaring had gunned it in front of my office against the signal and subsequently t-boned a car travelling with the green light and injuring and pinning its occupants, upset eye witnessed hollered at arriving police about what had happened. The officers threatened the eye witnesses with arrest and obstruction of police work. When I interfered and called it witness intimidation the officers got even more belligerent. What saved me then was a supervisor who arrived just in time to call the rogue officers to order and apologize to those who were witnesses. In other words: No segment of the population, not even the comparably privileged would want a police force that violates the rights of others, is arrest and trigger happy or poorly educated.
Police as adversary

The matter of protection versus oppression, the death of Freddie Gray and the spiking murder rate are all sadly interrelated. A police as an occupying force may depress crime rates for a while but it will loose community support and with it effectiveness. A police that has become insecure and is in the process of relearning to become a protection and service force again is initially even less effective. This seems to be where we are this year, apparently a sad price to pay towards a path towards police truly protecting law abiding citizens without killing innocent bystanders, children, grandmothers or small time drug dealers in the process.

All that is playing out in Baltimore and across the country. In the level of violence the US is far behind most other advanced civilizations, a well known fact for which only a few have good explanations, the so-called gun culture being one. The violence has gotten us deep into a vicious cycle.

Not only do we have the highest incarceration rates worldwide, we also have a history of police being violent beyond measure. US murder rates are higher than most other countries by far (the per capita murder rate of the US is five times that of Germany) and the rates of police killings are also higher than in any comparable country. No doubt, the two statistics are related and cause and effect may go back and forth.
Fact: In the first 24 days of 2015, police in the US (316 million) fatally shot more people than police did in England and Wales, combined (57 million), over the past 24 years.
Fact: There has been just one fatal shooting by Icelandic police in the country’s 71-year history. The city of Stockton, California – with 25,000 fewer residents than all of Iceland combined – had three fatal encounters in the first five months of 2015. 
Fact: Police in the US have shot and killed more people – in every week this year – than are reportedly shot and killed by German police in an entire year. (population of Germany: 87.7 million) 
Fact: Police in Canada average 25 fatal shooting a year. In California, a state just 10% more populous than Canada, police in 2015 have fatally shot nearly three times as many people in just five months. (Guardian)
 Another aspect of the current (Baltimore) conundrum is much less talked about: With 2015 exceeding the per capita murder rate of 1995 (one of Baltimore's highest) we are not dealing with the same people as we did in 1995, instead we are dealing with the children of those who were gunned down back then, who grew up their fathers dead or in prison and are now 20 years old. Today's perpetrators and often also their victims are the next generation, a generation that were failed by their families and society for their entire lifetime. Children that often grew up without guidance and without opportunity, typically stuck in a neighborhood that hardly improved in the last 20 years and that they found impossible to escape. They also saw police mostly as an occupying force and not as protection.
Young William Stewart, a friend of Mr. Gray’s, says the police 
are disrespectful. 
CreditTodd Heisler/The New York Times 

If one wants to truly understand where the callous disregard for life and rules of any kind comes from which seems to be so ubiquitous in Baltimore, one has to understand the influence of popular culture with its adoration of violence, the power of the gun industry but especially one needs to see how hopeless the conditions of these young men (and women) who kill each other was and is.

These realizations are not supposed to be excuses to enable further violence and crime and reciting them is not a new insight.

Wes Moore, D Watkins or Ta Nahesi Coates have described the oppression, the hopelessness and ensuing culture of violence much better than I ever could. The realizations must be the starting point for drastic reform, whether it is reform of police, the reform of housing or the revitalization of whole communities. No city can succeed if whole segments of the community are entirely left out. As such, the current dire situation is also one of urban planning and design. Chicago, Detroit, St Louis, Oakland and Baltimore have begun the soul searching, 2016 must be the year when the old practices of neglect, oppression and abuse are finally thrown on the trash heap of history.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA