In 2014, there were 211 homicides in the city of Baltimore. The next year, there were 342, an astonishing increase of 62%. The murder rate has barely budged since.
What happened? On April 12, 2015, Freddie Gray suffered a fatal injury in the back of a police van. Peaceful protests and then violence ensued. A demoralized, under-resourced and sometimes corrupt police force stopped doing its job properly. Nearly 30,000 residents have since fled the city, whose population is now the lowest it’s been in a century.
The story of Baltimore’s unraveling was best told by journalist Alec MacGillis in a searing account last year in The New York Times Magazine. It should be read again today, against a backdrop of sudden surges in crime that are mainly devastating minority communities. In New York, shootings during the first three weeks in June more than doubled over the same period last year. In Minneapolis, the homicide rate is double what it was this time last year.
Murder rates are similarly rising in some of America’s largest cities. Why is it all happening now? Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had an idea: Out-of-work parents, reeling from the recession, are shoplifting to feed their kids. The New York congresswoman later defended her remarks by insisting on the link between poverty and violent crime.
The theory, however, is doubtful – not to mention insulting to poor people. As social scientist James Wilson pointed out, crime rose dramatically in the 1960s, an era of steady employment and strong economic growth. But it dropped across the board during the Great Recession (including in rates of property theft) when the unemployment rate abruptly doubled. The causes of crime may be reasonably debated, but the Jean Valjean theory belongs to the pages of Victor Hugo.
More instructive is the Baltimore example. “The national progressive story of Baltimore during this era of criminal-justice reform has been the story of the police excesses that led to Gray’s death and the uprising, not the surge of violence that has overtaken the city ever since,” MacGillis writes. “As a result, Baltimore has been left mostly on its own to contend with what has been happening, which has amounted to nothing less than a failure of order and governance the likes of which few American cities have seen in years.”
The causes of this are several, racism among them. But MacGillis leaves no doubt that the quality of policing is at the center. Until 2011, Baltimore had become safer thanks to smart policing that targeted criminal hot spots while making fewer arrests, albeit with a rise in police-involved shootings.
That changed after a new commissioner arrived touting the virtues of police restraint and improved community relations. In the protests and violence that followed Gray’s death, police were urged to hold back until they came under attack: 130 officers were injured and the National Guard was called in.
Toxic relations between the police and the city’s political leadership made matters worse. A federal consent decree showed little understanding of how effective policing works, further hamstringing law enforcement. Expanded definitions of “use of force” made officers especially reluctant to intervene in situations where there was a chance of a physical altercation. The police force shrank. A new mayor touted the benefits of after-school programs and social mediators to treat the root causes of crime. But, as MacGillis acidly notes, the mayor’s plan “risked overlooking the most immediate dilemma: People inclined toward lawbreaking increasingly thought they could do so with impunity.”
The result is a comprehensive urban tragedy that can’t be blamed on long lockdowns, hot summer weather, the coronavirus or the state of the economy.
It’s also a cautionary tale. With all the usual good intentions, cities across America risk emulating the same catastrophic mistakes made in Baltimore. New York has disbanded its plainclothes crime-fighting unit and may criminalize the use of holds that, while prone to abuse, many officers consider essential for dealing with violent suspects. Milwaukee is looking at a 10% cut in police funding. Minneapolis may disband its police force entirely, at least if its City Council gets its way.
Idealists may hope these changes will eliminate police brutality as communities find better ways to prevent crime than deterrence and force. But on the hunch that human nature hasn’t changed, that isn’t going to happen. Criminals, fearing less, will continue to prey on others. Police, fearing more, will hold back from doing their jobs. Those with means to leave their neighborhoods, will. Those without the means will suffer.
For those under the age of, say, 35, who fail to appreciate what it means to live in places where officers are more fearful than robbers, there’s no need to look at the historical crime data. Just put Baltimore on your itinerary to see where certain progressive fantasies lead.
Bret Stephens is a columnist for The New York Times.