Larry Gibson is a professor of law at the University of Maryland. (Courtesy Photo)

By Larry S. Gibson

It is unacceptable that year after year Baltimore has more than 300 homicides. This is a crisis that must be addressed.  We have to do whatever is effective to reduce homicides.  That will require examining all current efforts and expanding any approaches that appear to work.  

 The urgency is amplified by the recent dramatic surge in homicides nationwide.  Last year, homicides across the nation increased a shocking 25%, from 16,000 in 2019 to more than 20,000 in 2020.     The increases were in rural, suburban, and urban areas.  In big cities, the increases averaged 35%.   It is urgent that this crisis be addressed, because current statistics for 2021 show that the nation is headed for another 25% increase in homicides. 

To develop effective strategies, we must try to understand why Baltimore was a dramatic exception. While the nation was experiencing in 2020 a 25% increase, homicides in Baltimore went down slightly.  The decrease was from 348 homicides in 2019 down to 335 in 2020, a decrease of 4%.

The Baltimore number is certainly nothing about which to be proud.  It is a tragedy; and it is urgent that we drive it down much lower.  But, if Baltimore had followed the rest of the nation, Baltimore would have had 439 homicides in 2020.   As we strive to further decrease homicides in Baltimore, it is important to determine what caused Baltimore to deviate so dramatically from the national trend.

Some theories that have been suggested do not stand up to close scrutiny.

First, it is clear that these numbers about the percentages of increase in homicides are not in dispute. They are widely available on the Internet.  

Nor was this just a statistical blip. The difference between the nationwide 25% increase and Baltimore’s 4% decrease is huge and “statistically significant. “   Furthermore, the gap has continued into 2021.  While the nation is on track to have another 25% increase in 2021, the current numbers show that, if there is an increase in Baltimore, it will again be far below the national average.

Some have suggested that relative population sizes explain the differences.  But that is not valid, because the increases in homicides occurred in cities larger than Baltimore and in cities and towns smaller than Baltimore. It was nationwide.

Others have suggested that examining the absolute number of homicides is the relevant inquiry.   Certainly Baltimore has far too many homicides.  But the big increases last year occurred in cities with traditionally more homicides than Baltimore and in places that have fewer homicides than Baltimore.  

Changing the statistical focus to the number of homicides per capita also does not explain why Baltimore was an exception.   As is the case with many social ills, per capita numbers for big cities are, in large measure, functions of where in the metropolitan area a city’s corporate boundaries are drawn.   In cities, like Baltimore (only 81 square miles) and St. Louis, with tight borders and high percentages of the region’s poverty inside the city limits, per capita rates tend to be higher for hunger, crime, homelessness, drug addition, medical problems, and other social ills.   Even so, Baltimore had a decrease in homicides, while other big cities with similar demographics, like St. Louis, had increases, in some cases over 35%.  

Theories have been floated that the drop in homicides in Baltimore was due to improved emergency medical services and shock trauma hospital services.  But, there is no evidence that those services were in one year improved so much in Baltimore to account for the differences in homicides.

Baltimore’s results were probably due to a combination of factors.   Some of the possibilities are finally having stability at the top of the police department, changes in prosecutorial priorities, anti-crime efforts by political leaders, and community based anti-violence activists and organizations.  Undoubtedly, other factors contributed.

Whatever is causing Baltimore to break away from the pack, must be identified, sustained, and strengthened.  Now is not the time to declare victory.  Nor is it the time to give up or to just complain.   Baltimore must not be allowed to catch up to the rest of the nation in annual increases in homicides.  We need clear thinking, honest evaluation, thoughtful planning, and sustained action.  And yes, in the process we might find some answers that are helpful beyond Baltimore’s borders.

Larry Gibson is a professor of law at the University of Maryland and resides in Baltimore.

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