Donald Fry: Labor Day violence frames the challenge facing new police commissioner

 

By Donald C. Fry

The recent Labor Day weekend violence in Baltimore City, where 16 people were shot and six died, brought holiday tragedy to several city neighborhoods, largely in the east and northeast sections of the city.

They served as a brutal reminder that, despite declining violent crime rates and FBI statistics showing Baltimore City is no longer among the top five in the nation for homicides, our city and its incoming police commissioner nevertheless face significant public safety challenges.

By almost any objective measurement, Anthony Batts, who will begin his tenure as Baltimore’s police commissioner on September 27, is highly qualified for the job. Batts was handpicked by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. He comes to Baltimore with an appealing combination of street-wise grit and impressive academic and management credentials.

He served 30 years on the Long Beach, Calif., police force. He has been a police chief for nine years – seven at Long Beach and two heading the Oakland police force. He also has a doctorate in public administration and, most recently, was a lecturer and performed research at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

People who have worked with Batts at virtually every stop including Oakland – where he reportedly had a rocky relationship with some elected leaders – have praised Batts as a well-liked, smart and exceptional leader.

All of those qualities will be needed when the new commissioner takes the reins in Baltimore where, with its lingering and tenacious penchant for violence, there is still much work to do.

The number of homicides in Baltimore City – 196 in 2011 – has declined dramatically since the late 1990s when Baltimore was routinely enduring more than 300 homicides per year. The annual rate of violent crime has also declined, dropping from more than 16,000 in 1998 to 8,885 last year, according to FBI data.

But city leaders must be careful not to let encouraging statistics distort, in any way, the sense of urgency and the specific nature of the public safety challenge that remains.

The city has dropped off the top five homicide list, but we are No. 6, even after a 35 percent reduction in homicides during the last 12 years.

While it’s accurate to say most neighborhoods in Baltimore City are eminently safe places to live and work, there are at least five neighborhoods where homicide is the third leading cause of death behind cancer and heart disease, according to Baltimore City Health Department data.

In two neighborhoods in east Baltimore, the average annual homicide rate exceeds more than six homicides per 10,000 residents – almost twice Baltimore’s citywide rate and more than the average rate in the No. 1 city for homicides – New Orleans, according to city data.

Six more city neighborhoods experience annual homicide rates of more than four per 10,000, rates that exceed the average rates of the top three U.S. cities for homicides.

It’s worth noting that incoming Commissioner Batts is intimately familiar with such neighborhoods.

“I grew up in South Central (Los Angeles), with all the dysfunctionalities of drugs and crime,” he recently told Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton.

He also got a first-hand look at Baltimore’s version of that dysfunction when, during a recent tour of east Baltimore, he witnessed a drug deal being conducted right in front of him, Fenton reported. It’s precisely this drug-driven and violence-infested culture that starkly frames the core obstacle that must be overcome to achieve a citywide quality of life that all of Baltimore’s citizens can enjoy.

Lionel Foster, the Baltimore Sun‘s newest columnist, grew up in East Baltimore and now works at Johns Hopkins University. In his inaugural column last week, Foster summed up the net effect of a childhood “spent fearing for your safety.”

“I talk about the city proudly, but my time here has given me a chronic case of the jitters,” Foster wrote.

That one sentence sums up the fundamental mission of our new police commissioner, city elected officials, business advocates and community leaders. The ultimate public safety goal has to be to evolve our city into a place where nobody in any neighborhood has to live with chronic jitters.

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