Why is Baltimore unsafe while New York is the safest city in the nation?

I first met Deandre when he was 14, on a player/coach bonding walk along the Gwynn’s Falls Trail through underutilized Leakin Park in West Baltimore.  Set up so the kids from the treeless East side had a chance at breathing in sights and sounds of a wood within the city, we coaches spent our time one on one with the guys as we walked.  Under fall colors on that cool day, I fell in with Deandre.  The topic?  Sex.

Hearing how many siblings I have, six, with the same father, the scrawny and sassy, dark eyed kid turned to me with a look whose stare let you know he was thinking.

“Your dad has some stroke, yo.”

I knew what he meant though the local idiom startled me.  Having been 14 once, I laughed but said nothing.

“With your mother,” he said to test me but with a willingness to listen.

“You might think it, Dee”, I began, “but that’s not something you would ever say of the man”.   He smiled, nodding, saying nothing.

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.
Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.

I’ve been in and out of Deandre’s life in seven years since.  I’ve walked him to the doors of the alternative high school he was assigned to after refusing to attend his previous school.   Taking him to dinner when he was seventeen, I implored him to stay at a mentor’s house, away from the neighborhood, after his mother left the city and him to the streets.

All, to no avail.  He preferred staying high on weed, flopping from house to house and the safety of other young folks whose similar plight made them all prey to each other, other gangs and police.  Now in his twentieth year, Deandre faces trial in November for armed carjacking and robbery charges in a suburban county where such incidents are rare and adjudicated more harshly.

As part of his hope to ascend the national ticket in 2016, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley has been touting his accomplishments in Annapolis and his time as mayor of Baltimore.   After seven years of showing little friction between city and state, the Governor came out with a surprising attack on the present administration of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake in an editorial for The Baltimore Sun.

Touting his strategy of clearing corners of drug dealers and other vagrants including greater arrests rates under what he and others deemed ‘quality of life’ crimes, the Governor sent a signal that Baltimore is going backward in keeping its citizens safe.  Using a simplified assessment, the Governor now equates lesser arrests with a rise in shootings and murders both this year and last.

Having parroted parts of an overall approach by Mayor Giuliani in New York during his mayoral tenure, O’Malley seems willing to use Baltimore’s slow resolve as a message to voters nationwide that he was tougher on crime than two mayors who followed him.

The response to Governor’s editorial has been swift and clear.  From both sides of the aisle, the rebuke of the governor has been almost unequivocal.  Several responses cited civil cases brought against the city and police by the NAACP and ACLU over incidents during O’Malley’s tenure that resulted in the city paying more than $870,000 in settlement damages to individuals.

Mayor Rawlings Blake cited an ‘anxiety’ within our community who fear a return to an O’Malley era of mass arrest sweeps.  She even placed blame on the state police, whose jurisdiction is the byways leading into Baltimore.

Maryland's 61st Governor Martin O'Malley.
Maryland’s 61st Governor Martin O’Malley.

Governor O’Malley’s bald attempt to position himself for 2016 on the backs of a still poor and scared Baltimore coupled with the present mayor’s inane defense of an already anxious and exhausted citizenry leaves this Democratic voter sighing.  I have often posited that nationally, the GOP is the myopic, obstinate player keeping the United States from moving forward.  The same can be said of local Democrats, whose willingness to blame others equals the GOP in Congress.

This year, The Vera Institute at New York University published a study to address how that city decreased its prison population dramatically while reducing crime too.  Like then Mayor O’Malley’s policy of addressing low level street crime, New York used similar efforts at first, producing similar results:  an immediate increase in prison population through arrests, resulting in immediate drops in street crime.

Soon after, the NYPD employed a more targeted approach to violent crime instead of mass sweeps, bringing down the numbers of incarcerated New Yorkers to a low not seen in fifty years.  Baltimore attempted the same through a mayoral transition in 2007, to the present.

Until last year, Baltimore had seen a steady decline in both shootings and murders with sentences for convictions increasing.  While Baltimore’s incarceration rate remains too high, overall violent crime has steadily declined.  In other words, the approach of both O’Malley and subsequent mayors Sheila Dixon and Rawlings Blake has been effective if imperfect, even as it transformed.

Still, the question remains:  why is Baltimore stubbornly unsafe where New York is now, qualitatively, the safest city in the nation?

Having seen many of the bullies of my childhood die young and in terrible ways, I rarely believe a bullying tactic is effective.  One such case is Syria, where President Obama’s threat of a bombing campaign against the Assad regime forced both he and his main arms supplier, Russia, to the bargaining table.

Former Baltimore mayor Sheila Dixon resigned following conviction in her first of two scheduled trials in a plea bargain. (Wikipedia Commons)
Former Baltimore mayor Sheila Dixon resigned following conviction in her first of two scheduled trials in a plea bargain. (Wikipedia Commons)

In the case of addiction, particularly addicts with children, bullying may have a similar positive effect if used in tandem with effective treatment.   In the case of Anthony Anderson, an addict who died last year at the hands of Baltimore’s police, we already know that type of bullying is unworkable, ineffective and at times, deadly.  Hence, two politicians debating police tactics displays an ignorance of what kids like Deandre endure in their formative years.

Making Baltimore a safer place is not just about policing.  We already know over 40 percent of addicts who sought treatment in Baltimore in 2011 have at least one child.  We also know how many young dealers in Baltimore are children of addicts, usually of hard drugs sold on street corners by other young men who come from the same circumstance.

Deandre was six when O’Malley took office as mayor of Baltimore in 1999.  Then, his mother was a heroin addict and his father wasn’t around.  He was 13 when the next mayor, Sheila Dixon, assumed office and sixteen when the present mayor, Rawlings Blake, replaced her.  His mother remains an addict and his father is still invisible.  Through all those years and changes to policing, prosecution and education, no one bothered to see if Deandre, a child of addiction, was safe.

It seems we have hit a wall in Baltimore when it comes to public safety.  The rising number of shootings and murders reflect how, once again, we must alter a somewhat successful approach to lowering crime and the rate of incarceration too.  Confronting addiction where we know it exists, not simply among volunteer clients for rehab, may bring us closer to keeping wayward, hungry kids like Deandre from making bad decisions.

Six months since his arrest and subsequent incarceration has given Deandre a chance to gain weight the way the street and his home never did:  he’s now 25 pounds heavier.  Still, come November, he’ll likely begin a five year stretch in state prison.  How he, and hundreds like him got there should be obvious by now.

It’s been more than two decades since Mayor Kurt Schmoke declared drug addiction a public health issue.  Little has changed since then.  Soviet style political attacks on previous or present administrations provides no succor for addicts or their children who, like Deandre, still endure whole childhood cycles without intervention.  Sadly, should Deandre reflect on his short life, all he may find is a pillar of salt.

Poor kid.