Don’t blame vic­tims

Once again, Bal­ti­more of­fi­cials are mak­ing the point that most of those killed had crim­i­nal records — as if that makes their deaths mean less

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - FRONT PAGE -

When the homi­cide num­bers are as high as they are in Bal­ti­more, it’s no sur­prise when pub­lic of­fi­cials try to ex­plain them away. One way is to blame the vic­tims. And that is pre­cisely what the city’s po­lice depart­ment seemed to be do­ing when an­nounc­ing ear­lier this week that Bal­ti­more had logged a dev­as­tat­ing 309 killings in 2017. The depart­ment’s press team sent an e-mail no­tice­ably packed with sta­tis­tics about the back­grounds of those who had been killed. And it didn’t paint them in a flat­ter­ing light.

Homi­cide vic­tims with pre­vi­ous ar­rest records ac­counted for 83.8 per­cent of the deaths. Those with pre­vi­ous gun crime ar­rests made up 48.5 per­cent of those killed, while 24.9 per­cent were on pa­role or pro­ba­tion. Homi­cide vic­tims who had been pre­vi­ously shot in a non-fa­tal shoot­ing were 19.4 per­cent of the to­tal. And, of course, the same goes for those ac­cused of com­mit­ting the mur­ders. Homi­cide sus­pects with pre­vi­ous ar­rest records rep­re­sented 85.6 per­cent of all sus­pects. Homi­cide sus­pects with pre­vi­ous gun crime ar­rests made up 44.4 per­cent, and those sus­pects on pa­role or pro­ba­tion at the time of the in­ci­dent: 30 per­cent.

We get it, bad peo­ple killing bad peo­ple, right? It’s not the first time some­one has made this ar­gu­ment, and it’s not get­ting any bet­ter with rep­e­ti­tion. We’re be­ing asked to believe that be­cause most of the killings were of peo­ple with a crim­i­nal his­tory by peo­ple with a crim­i­nal his­tory, they mat­tered less. Or that the crime prob­lem isn't so bad be­cause of it who it in­volved. At the very least, the depart­ment seems to be as­sign­ing some blame to the vic­tims rather than as­sess­ing its own in­abil­ity to bring the vi­o­lence un­der con­trol.

The num­bers don’t nec­es­sar­ily tell the en­tire story. Sure, a wide ma­jor­ity of the crime vic­tims had a crim­i­nal his­tory. But a pre­vi­ous ar­rest could mean any­thing from at­tempted mur­der to shoplift­ing in­fant for­mula or di­a­pers for a baby. In the not-too-dis­tant past, Bal­ti­more po­lice were mak­ing more than 100,000 ar­rests a year, of­ten on the pre­text of mi­nor nui­sance crimes. Were the vic­tims car­ry­ing a gun be­cause they were in­volved in vi­o­lent ac­tiv­ity or be­cause they be­lieved it was nec­es­sary to pro­tect them­selves? Was the pre­vi­ous ar­rest last week or 10 years ago?

Take a look at the homi­cide anal­y­sis sheet, pro­vided by the depart­ment af­ter the ini­tial e-mail, and dig deeper into the data. You will find that the cops aren’t solv­ing many of the homi­cides. The clearance rate in 2018 was 43.4 per­cent, down from 51.5 per­cent the year be­fore. For the ma­jor­ity of the killings they don’t even have a mo­tive. How can you fight crime if you don’t have an un­der­stand­ing of why it is oc­cur­ring?

Even if the homi­cides do in­volve peo­ple with a crim­i­nal past, that makes them no less rel­e­vant. A lost life is a lost life. Ask any grief spe­cial­ist and they’ll tell you death has a rip­ple af­fect no mat­ter who it is. Re­searchers es­ti­mate that ev­ery homi­cide has a di­rect im­pact on 10 other peo­ple.

Maybe the cops should take a deeper look at the rip­ple of af­fects of crime and poverty in­stead of de­mo­niz­ing all homi­cide vic­tims with gen­er­al­iza­tions pro­vided by vague sta­tis­tics.

We un­der­stand that many of the vi­o­lent crimes are com­mit­ted by a small group of peo­ple and that there are a whole host of rea­sons why they have the op­por­tu­nity to recom­mit crimes — from light sen­tences by judges to a stop snitch­ing cul­ture that makes wit­nesses scared to come for­ward.

But what seems to al­ways be missing from the po­lice anal­y­sis of homi­cide rates is self-re­flec­tion. What about the weak­nesses in the depart­ment, such as in­ves­ti­ga­tions that lack solid ev­i­dence and cor­rup­tion that makes it hard for many to believe any­thing any­one in the depart­ment says?

No mat­ter who the crime vic­tims are — whether they have crim­i­nal pasts or not — the fact still re­mains the homi­cide rate is high. Even if many parts of the city are safe for res­i­dents and vis­i­tors, this isn’t just a per­cep­tion prob­lem. Vi­o­lence leads to trauma, and trauma leads to vi­o­lence, and for gen­er­a­tions, that is a cy­cle Bal­ti­more has not been able to in­ter­rupt.

We rec­og­nize that the po­lice aren’t re­spon­si­ble for the legacy of seg­re­ga­tion, poverty, lack of op­por­tu­nity and fail­ing schools that con­trib­ute to Bal­ti­more’s crime prob­lem. They can’t solve ev­ery­thing. But the fact is, the po­lice have done bet­ter in the past and must do bet­ter again. That starts with ac­knowl­edg­ing their own fail­ings, not blam­ing the vic­tims.

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