Hell to pay in Baltimore

The death of Freddie Gray drew outrage from Baltimore’s Black community, and rightly so. Gray was alive and well when the police took him into their custody, and ended up dead. The resulting protests (but not the rioting) were a reasonable response.

But police mistreatment of suspects is far from the most serious problem of violence that confronts Baltimore’s Black community. The Washington Post reports that during the period from mid-April to mid-May, 31 people were murdered in Baltimore. 39 others were wounded by gunfire.

Twice during this period, 10 people were shot on a single day. By mid-May, the city’s homicide count was 91, 21 above last year at the same time.

Lodging criminal charges against six police officers in the Gray case quelled the city’s rioting. But it had no real impact on the murder rate.

The victims of Baltimore’s homicides are, in virtually all instances, African-American. They comprised 211 of the 216 homicide victims in 2014.

The killers are also, almost invariably, African-American, as the city’s political leadership acknowledges in its more sober moments. A month before Gray’s death, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake held a summit to urge black men to help stop black-on-black killings.

A great many of the murders, including the one featured in the Post’s article, are drug related. It’s reasonable to believe that such murders would increase if more drug dealers, even low-level ones, were put back into, or permitted to remain in, the street — as many criminal justice “reformers” favor.

The Baltimore police force, which is roughly 50 percent African-American, represents a line of protection against the violence that is plaguing the Black community. But according to the Post, it has been left thoroughly demoralized by recent events:

“Officers are coming up to me and saying, ‘I’m afraid to do my job,’ ” said Lt. Kenneth Butler, a 29-year veteran and president of a group for black officers. He said officers, black and white, are “equally upset, their morale is low.”

Lt. Victor Gearhart, with 33 years of experience, said officers are second-guessing themselves, tamping down aggressive policing. “Now they have to think, ‘What happens if this turns bad? What is going to happen to me?’”

Police officers cannot, of course, be immunized from prosecution, whatever the impact on department morale. It may well have been reasonable to charge at least some of the officers who were involved with Gray on the night of his arrest.

But the Baltimore police force has plenty of good reasons to be demoralized. First, the timing of the charges and the demagoguery that accompanied them made it look like the charges were designed to placate a mob, not deliver justice. Second, it appears that the prosecutor overcharged at least some of the officers.

Third, the mayor did not permit police officers properly to defend themselves during the rioting. Limited essentially to shielding themselves from protesters throwing rocks, bricks and concrete slabs at them, nearly two dozen officers sustained injury.

Fourth, the Gray episode is held out as emblematic of the way the police treats blacks in Baltimore’s poor neighborhoods. To my knowledge, the evidence doesn’t support this claim. In any event, the claim is demoralizing.

If the police is going to do its job — to help make cities, including their poor communities, safer — it needs to be more active and vigilant. Yet, the loudest voices are urging it to be less so. More importantly, the incentives are being stacked in favor of less activity and vigilance.

I expect there will be hell to pay. In Baltimore, it looks like there already is.

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