Center Maryland: In 2016 public safety in Baltimore must be priority No. 1

Entering the Baltimore Inner Harbor with the Baltimore Skyline in the background

Editor’s note: The following commentary appeared on CenterMaryland.org on December 18, 2015.

By Donald C. Fry

As we close out 2015, it’s hard not to look at the challenging issue of the high homicide rate in Baltimore City and think about what additional or perhaps innovative steps elected officials, the business sector, nonprofits and neighborhood community groups individually or collectively can take in 2016 to really make a difference on this vexing issue.

Earlier this week the Greater Baltimore Committee hosted an event in which four public officials – two city council members and two state legislators – were invited to discuss their priorities for the year ahead and answer questions from the audience.

The legislators provided a spirited discussion on many important issues facing the city and state, Baltimore’s homicide rate being one of the issues raised.

While most areas of the city are safe, a high homicide rate creates the perception in the region and the nation that Baltimore is not a safe city. It’s an important issue on many fronts. For one, public safety is important to businesses so they can attract and retain employees and customers. It also contributes to the sense of security and well being among children, which in turn contributes to their personal growth.

And so for these and many other reasons, public safety should be considered a top priority for Baltimore in the year ahead.

Some of the solutions and viewpoints offered at the GBC event are worth considering as the year comes to a close with over 325 homicides, making 2015 the city’s deadliest year, per capita, in its history.

When we talk about these statistics it’s important to keep in mind that behind the raw numbers are families and loved ones who are broken hearted by these tragedies and their lives upended in ways few of us can imagine.

Most of the victims are young black men. Some are children.

To be fair, Baltimore police, working with federal and other officials, have been putting a focus on violent crime and getting guns off the streets. The monthly homicide statistics have dropped (18 in December compared to 45 in July).

But as the elected officials agreed, police can’t solve the problem in the short or long-term alone.

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Brandon Scott, a young city councilman who represents District 2, made an insightful point at the GBC event about the dynamic of too many youths in some parts of the city who are drawn to crime or associating with the wrong people and ending up the victims of violent crime.

While he agrees that strong policing and good schools – two commonly mentioned solutions – are part of the solution, he is convinced they are not the only answers.

The city should also focus on two key areas: strengthening families and support networks in the communities hard hit by violent crime and homicides. He speaks of the need of an overall “culture change” among youths growing up in the tough neighborhoods of the city. To many, gangs and crime are seen as the only options.

Councilman Scott noted that when he was growing up in the Park Heights neighborhood, there were older men on the neighborhood corners who would admonish youths for crossing the line or making trouble. Scott noted he also had parents at home who cared about him and his future. A boyhood friend he grew up with in the neighborhood also came from a home with good parents. He went on to be a firefighter. But two other friends didn’t have family support at home and ended up on the wrong side of life, Scott recalls.

As he notes, the four youths grew up in the same neighborhood, went to the same school, and knew many of the same people. The major differentiating factor that is evident was a stable family environment.

Today too many youths do not live in two parent households and lack a father figure. To fill that gap today, he notes, the city needs mentors willing to hit the streets and intervene, like he does with the 300 Men March, a volunteer organization he co-founded with community activist Munir Bahar. The organization trains men to patrol tough neighborhoods, urging youths to turn away from the gang and drug cultures. But he urges there also needs to be strong programs and organizations that can provide the hard work and expertise necessary to make families strong and hold them together.

City Council President Bernard C. “Jack”  Young, another guest at the GBC event, agrees with Scott that there needs to be more programs and efforts to ensure youths in troubled neighborhoods receive proper family support.

But he also believes that elected officials, the business community, nonprofits and community leaders need to identify and develop good job opportunities for residents of areas hit hard by crime. Poor job opportunities and unemployment are contributing, not just to homicide, but to all crime in the city, the council president says.

Young notes he is often approached by youths in tough neighborhoods who ask him if he can help them get a good paying job. They would prefer to have good paying work rather than be on a street corner vulnerable to the draw of gangs or drug culture, Young said.

As is typical of complex issues, identifying the problem is relatively easy but finding the correct solution is a challenge. There are a number of noble solutions, ranging from increased family stability, improved job opportunities, better education, and leveraging the expertise of  dedicated organizations with boots on the ground trying to turn the tide.

A key goal for 2016 is a commitment from the city and law enforcement leadership to public safety as the highest priority and to build a broad, united coalition of government agencies, community groups, business organizations and others to tackle it with vengeance. Time is of the essence.

It would be quite an amazing story to tell if at the end of next year Baltimore was no longer known as the city with an all-time high homicide rate, but as a urban city that came together and turned the tide of this horrific social ill.

Don Fry is President and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee and a regular contributor to Center Maryland.

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