A police car.

A police car. Credit: Karen Wiles Stabile

Before we Baltimoreans become paralyzed by despair over last year’s record homicide rate, we should remember one thing: As a nation and a city, we have been in such straits before. And we learned how to address the problem successfully.

Back in the late ’80s and early ’90s, America’s cities suffered a similar epidemic of violence. In 1990, New York tallied 2,245 homicides, a per capita rate five times greater than in 1960. Baltimore’s rate was one third higher than New York’s, and rates in Detroit and Washington, D.C. were higher still.

The proximate cause was the development of a powerful and profitable new illicit drug - crack cocaine - and violent competition for market share by rival drug gangs. The leaders of those gangs knew that the justice system treated juveniles more leniently than it treated adults, so they used teens as foot soldiers in their turf wars, with horrific results.

Homicides committed by 14- to 17-year-olds doubled in the ’80s, and criminologists predicted another doubling in the ’90s. Early in his first term, President Bill Clinton opined that “we’ve got about six years to turn this juvenile crime thing around, or our country is going to be living with chaos.”

In some places, however, things had already started to turn around and not because society had magically treated any of the “root causes” - racism, poverty, failing schools or lack of economic opportunity - popularly supposed to have fueled the crime surge.

The key was cops and more efficient rather than more aggressive policing. Indeed, a remarkable East Coast vs. West Coast experiment demonstrated the difference.

New York’s police commissioner, a numbers geek named Bill Bratton, analyzed data to send patrols to crime hot spots and held high-pressure biweekly meetings demanding results from precinct commanders. He implemented “broken windows” policing, training cops to intercede at the beginning of a crime cycle rather than its violent end; citations for turnstile-jumping in the subways or vandalism in the streets often turned up outstanding warrants and forestalled more serious criminal behavior.

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In Los Angeles, chief Daryl Gates waged an unfocused war on crime. Many weekends, his “Operation Hammer” sent battalions of cops into neighborhoods where gangs were active and jacked up male teens more or less at random, making them kiss the sidewalk while they were checked out; often, hundreds were locked up, to be released on Monday mornings with no charges filed.

Chief Bratton’s way worked wonders; Chief Gates’ failed. In “Hammer’s” first year, LA’s crime rate was 6 percent below New York’s; a decade later, it was 34 percent higher. The LAPD lost public trust and was seen not as an ally in the struggle for public order but as an occupying army. New York, by contrast, just completed its 27th consecutive year of declining crime rates, with fewer than 300 homicides.

What has kept Baltimore off a similarly successful path?

It starts with our policing legacy, which too often has stressed Gates-style aggressiveness over Brattonian efficiency. True broken-windows policing, according to its co-originator, sociologist George Kelling, involves “a negotiated sense of order in a community,” requiring collaboration between authorities and those with a stake in the area’s viability. “If you tell your cops ’We are going to go in and practice zero tolerance for all minor crimes,’” in Mr. Kelling’s words, “you are inviting a mess of trouble.” Which, of course, is exactly what we’ve got in Charm City.

But distrust of cops is also fueled locally and nationally by a false narrative, a radical and distorted view of race relations that denies the achievements of the civil rights movement and slanders all police as instruments of oppression. While it would be foolish to hold that all police are free of bias or that even top cops are incapable of tragic errors, it is misinformed and counter-productive to view them with the kind of hostility that, according to a recent FBI report, contributes to de-policing of high-crime areas and, on occasion, inspires anti-cop violence.

The sad fact is that minorities are suffering disproportionate harm from such de-policing. Where the race of victims is known, the homicide rate for black Baltimoreans (at 73 per 100,000 population) is nearly six times that for whites (under 13 per 100,000). If black lives truly matter, then, more police and better policing tactics are needed in Baltimore - especially in minority neighborhoods.

Policy-makers and police brass understand this, and constructive efforts to staff up and re-focus law enforcement efforts are underway. The question is whether community leaders will renounce anti-cop rhetoric and actions, join in a collaboration aimed at enhancing policing efforts and work to change Baltimore’s “stop snitching” culture.

As 2017 showed, many lives - and even the city’s viability - hang in the balance.

Stephen J.K. Walters is the author of “Boom Towns: Restoring the Urban American Dream” and a professor of economics at Loyola University Maryland.

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