Friday, February 3, 2017

Baltimore reeling from violence

Baltimore's crime statistics in 2016 were bad. 2017 is shaping up to be worse. Today's shooting and attempted execution at Red Emma's coffee shop  brought the. familiar pattern of  a violent feud between two people who know each other to the inside of a popular coffee shop in an area considered "reclaimed" from violent North Avenue as part of the hard fought Station North revitalization.
Crime at the intersection of many conflicts: Red Emma shooting

The discussion about crime in Baltimore is complicated. It follows many  narratives which makes a response so difficult that effective crime prevention or protection apparently has taken a beating. Baltimore crime as a function of drugs, of poverty, of joblessness, of dysfunctional families, is the familiar story. Mass incarceration, police brutality and a federal consent decree that tries to address racial and social injustice is a more recent narrative. The bifurcation between "urban" (blue) and "rural" (red) Americans is the latest overlay. Nobody should think that Baltimore or blue Maryland would protect us from the red "law and order" stands or divisive discussion about how to solve the problem. Just consider how many Baltimore police officers come from outside the City and see the City only through the lens of crime. Some tweets with snide remarks about liberals by an officer after the Red Emma shooting suggested animosity against the left clientele of the coffee shop. The Facebook discussion on the normally extremely civil and informed Baltimore Voters Facebook page became completely unhinged over the coffee shop shooting.

And then, of course, the State can trump the City any time. The Governor likes to put space between himself and the President but some of his remarks about Baltimore easily fall into a popular narrative that see cities as basket cases, as cesspools of moral turpitude and incompetence. Take the President describing "the carnage" in our cities. It isn't that the term is inappropriate as such, one can certainly describe what is going on in Baltimore or Chicago as carnage. But brash political leaders who want to send in the troops, are not the answer. The President has only threatened the Mayor of Chicago with it, the Governor of Maryland has actually done it. On the night of the unrest this may even have been the right thing, but any generalization of the authoritarian strong-man pattern renders any attempt of improving police-community relations useless. On the other hand, one cannot help but feel sorry for the regular police officer who receives so many mixed signals in an extremely volatile and dangerous work environment. There can be no doubt that the uncertainty of how to execute law enforcement has made the police less effective to the detriment of public safety.

Mayor Pugh wants to hire more officers who live in the City. Since a quick turn-around in the rate of local officers is unlikely, the second best would be to include police in more aspects of the City than murder and mayhem. Short staffed as City Police presumably is, that may also be wishful thinking. But a community cannot afford a police that can't be bothered with the small stuff that affects the quality of life only because they have all hands full with the many uncleared homicides. The police have to be "citizens in uniform" and they have to be law abiding citizens' friends and helpers. For that they have to get out of their squad cars, shed the jump-suit battle outfits and reflective eye shades and mingle with the rest of us. This isn't a new idea, in fact every police commissioner in recent memory has embraced community policing and walking the beat, but mostly it wasn't done.

Baltimore has the third highest officer per population density in the country. It must be possible to engage police in a manner that feels less like an occupying army that is feared and more like the type of protective force that makes us feel safe. For this to happen, both sides have to be willing to engage with each other in new ways before it is too late to bring some type of peace back to our streets or Baltimore's population will take another nose-dive.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA


City Paper about the shooting at Red Emmas