With homicides, a tale of two very different cities

Baltimore reels from murder rate unimaginable in Boston

IS IT POSSIBLE to maintain a fierce urgency to reduce gun violence in Boston, while also taking stock of how much worse things could be and being grateful for the things the city gets right when it comes to the issue?

It was hard to avoid those thoughts after reading Alec MacGillis’s gripping story in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine. MacGillis unspools the dispiriting saga of murder and mayhem in Baltimore, where a mix of corrupt and abusive policing, unsteady mayoral leadership, and a revolving door in the police commissioner’s office have contributed to scale of violence that seems unimaginable in Boston.

In 2017, Baltimore recorded 342 murders, a higher rate than any US city with a population greater than 500,000. Boston experienced 57 homicides that year. The two cities are of roughly comparable size, with Boston’s 2017 population estimated to be 685,000 and Baltimore’s pegged at 615,000

Incredibly, Baltimore’s 2017 murder count was a higher absolute number than seen that year in New York, a city with a population 14 times that of Baltimore.

Following the 2015 death in police custody of Freddie Gray, calls for reform of the Baltimore’s police intensified, as residents slammed police practices in the city.  A 2016 federal Department of Justice investigation accused the department of using excessive force and engaging in racial discrimination, a finding that led to a consent decree setting forth conditions for how the department would operate with a federal judge in an oversight role.

Though the federal oversight may have been warranted, the lack of confidence in local officials’ ability to manage the department only seems to have contributed to the chaos in the streets. Wary of overstepping boundaries, it contributed to what everyone called the “pullback,” a retreat by officers from intervening in situations in response to calls for service.

Tony Barksdale, a black Baltimore cop who served at one point as interim commissioner but was passed over for the permanent post, told MacGillis that the federal consent decree was preventing cops from even brooming people from known drug-dealing corners. “The criminals are so emboldened now,” he said. Barksdale had, as a deputy commissioner, developed a strategy of focusing on high-impact players on the street, an approach that coincided with a drop in homicides early in the decade as well as a big reduction in arrest numbers.

By 2017, MacGills writes, Baltimore’s new mayor, Catherine Pugh, was convinced that the solution was to focus on root causes of violence. The efforts included recruiting the Boston-area nonprofit Roca to come work with at-risk young people in Baltimore. But MacGillis said Pugh ignored the fact that dealing with gun violence isn’t an either/or matter of policing strategies or long-term focus on roots causes. Pugh’s focus on the latter, he writes, “risked overlooking the most immediate dilemma: People inclined toward lawbreaking increasingly thought they could do so with impunity.”

Despite the sense of a broad urban renaissance in America, two very different storylines have actually been playing out in US cities. Those living in places like New York and Boston have experienced “a wave of reinvestment coupled with a plunge in crime rates that has left many major cities to enjoy a sort of post-fear existence,” writes MacGillis. As for Baltimore, where he’s lived 11 of the last 18 years, he writes, “I have struggled to describe its unraveling to friends and colleagues elsewhere.”

Of course, there’s no single cause for the wildly different profiles of the two cities when it comes to homicide rates. It’s also important to note that big areas of Boston hardly enjoy a “post-fear existence.” But the article makes clear the corrosive effect of the constant churn in the leadership of the Baltimore police department, police corruption, the lack of consistent cooperation between various law enforcement agencies, and an inability to strike a balance between responsible and respectful policing of black neighborhoods and targeted efforts to combat violent crime.

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

Boston has experienced steady, and broadly-praised, leadership in its police department, which has also been free of major corruption issues. With a raft of community-based outreach programs and a police focus on gang violence, Boston has also long tried to follow a dual track — dealing with both long-term and more immediate dimensions of urban gun violence. At times it’s done so imperfectly — and the impact of gun violence should never be minimized, as protesters made clear when they interrupted a recent forum on the issue. But it’s still helpful to consider any of Boston’s shortcomings in a broader context.

MacGillis sums up well the delicate balance that police need to maintain. “Citizens lose trust in the police not only if they abuse their authority but also if they do nothing about people wreaking havoc on their community.”

The dysfunction in Baltimore has left residents feeling whipsawed between too much policing and too little. At a recent community meeting, residents vented their fears over the lawlessness of neighborhood streets. Several years ago, MacGills writes, “the claims were of overly aggressive policing; now residents were pleading for police officers to get out of their cars, to earn their pay — to protect them.” The residents “were not describing a trade-off between justice and order,” he writes. “They saw them as two parts of a whole and were daring to ask for both.”