When I started working in Baltimore in 2007, plenty of people told me to be careful because of their perception of crime in Baltimore. That perception was fed by television dramas like “The Wire” or “Homicide: Life on the Street”. In those television shows, we saw somewhat of a dystopian Baltimore where crime was rampant and the police were in over their heads when it came to dealing with said crime. Also, the city’s leaders were corrupt or corruptible, and everything about Baltimore stank, according to their plots.
Even before I started working in Baltimore, on my weekend trips into the city from Pennsylvania, the warnings kept coming from friends of all ages and walks of life. To them, Baltimore was a battlefield with bodies laying left and right. It was the murder capital of the world, and nothing anyone could say would convince them otherwise. Sadly, most of their perceptions were based, again, on television and on testimony from friends who’d ventured into the city. “I know a guy who had his wallet stolen on the metro,” a friend once told me. “Be careful not to get stabbed,” she warned. (I later met the friend. He’d dropped his wallet somewhere while visiting Baltimore and concluded that he was pickpocketed while riding the metro. No sharp objects were involved.)
The more I visited Baltimore and the more walks I took while working there, the more I realized that Baltimore was no different than any other big city. After visiting DC, New York, Philly, Mexico City, and Seoul, I can tell you that crime in Baltimore doesn’t worry me. Is it higher than other cities? Sure, but there are cities with much, much higher crime than Baltimore. (For several years, Juarez, Mexico, where I was born, had thousands of murders per year due to the drug wars.) Like so many other cities around the world — cities that people pay thousands of dollars to visit and admire — crime in Baltimore is more about who you are and where you live than about Baltimore itself. It’s also about the institutions that are failing the citizens of Baltimore and the tremendous inequalities that exist.
First, you need to understand a few things about Baltimore, things that I don’t grasp 100% even after working and studying there for over 7 years now. Baltimore is divided into neighborhoods, and the differences between the neighborhoods when it comes to health, crime, income, and other factors can be stark. The Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance is a group that examines all that there is to know about Baltimore and then presents the data in reports and online for people to learn about the neighborhoods.
Next, you need to understand the demographics of Baltimore. The most current Census Bureau estimate for the population of Baltimore is 622,104 residents. About 21% are children under the age of 18, and about 12% are adults over the age of 65. Baltimore is about 32% white, 63% black, 4% hispanic, 2% asian, and about 2% reporting more than one race. About 80% report having graduated from high school, and about 27% report having a bachelor’s degree of some sort. The median household income is about $41,000. Finally, about 24% of Baltimore residents live below the Federal poverty line.
Yes, a quarter of the city lives in poverty, and between 7.8% and 10.1% of workers are unemployed. (There’s a seasonal variation to unemployment which peaks in August.)
What drives crime? There are many answers to that question. Some say it’s poverty. Some say it’s not. Some say it’s the institutionalized racism and discrimination. Others say it’s not. What is for sure is that crime is tied in to a lot of causes, many of which come crashing together in poorer neighborhoods where children grow up at a disadvantage to their more affluent counterparts. Children growing up in poor neighborhoods may not get the opportunity to have behavioral interventions of any sort. Their parents may not be around to discipline them because said parents are out earning a living. Things that seem like an easy way out of poverty, like selling drugs or selling sex, become acceptable or even desirable. Educations and meaningful jobs become things that only others can have.
Then there are the issues of race and crime. For a very long time, a black child caught with marijuana is more likely to receive a prison sentence than a white child caught with the same exact amount of marijuana. A prison sentence brings with it a prison record, and the child has to grow up and go into a workforce where a box must be checked as to whether or not the child ever was convicted of a serious crime. Drug convictions also prevent the child from qualifying for financial aid to attend college or even a trade school.
Comedian Greg Proops once said that people take drugs “because they work.” He said that drugs help people escape — even if it’s a false escape — from the stresses of life. I’d say that living in poverty, in a run-down neighborhood, going to a crowded or even violent school, and having no hope for the future can be pretty stressful on a person of any age. A person may be tempted to try drugs, then sell drugs, then get into a hellish nightmare of drug-related violence that is fueled by the black market of — and associated failed policies with regards to — drugs.
Long story short, poverty, drugs, institutional racism, and a few other factors can be readily seen in Baltimore, and the consequences, at least for 2014, included 211 homicides in the city. That works out to about 34 homicides per 100,000 residents. It is certainly not the highest homicide rate for Baltimore, and there are other cities with higher rates, but it’s still pretty high compared to the national 2013 average of 4.5 murders per 100,000 residents. (Murder and homicide are different, I know. I’m using them in the same terms here since most homicides in Baltimore are criminal homicides, i.e. murder.)
Of those 211 homicides in Baltimore in 2014, 189 (90%) of the victims were black. Remember, in Baltimore, the proportion of residents who are black is 63%. Also, 186 (88%) were men. Putting it all together, about 82% of homicide victims in 2014 in Baltimore were black men. In terms of how the victims were killed, 76% were killed by guns, 15% by stabbing, 6% by blunt force trauma, the rest died by other means like asphyxiation (2) or unknown or not disclosed (3).
When you see the map of homicides in Baltimore, you might notice a pattern:
You might notice that there is sort of a “butterfly” to where the homicides happened. There’s a whole bunch in the northwest quadrant, a bunch in the middle-west area, another bunch in the middle-east area, and then nothing in a cone up the middle along I-83, nothing in an area in the northeast quadrant, and nothing in another area in the west.
I don’t have the GIS software to do a lot of fancy analysis of all this yet. (I’m taking a course in GIS in the next couple of terms, so I might be able to come up with better maps.) But I will bet you dollars to doughnuts that the concentration of homicides takes place in the more disadvantaged neighborhoods in Baltimore. Said in a different way, you are more likely to be killed in the more disadvantaged neighborhoods in Baltimore.
Look at this map of unemployment for Baltimore created by the BNIA:
There is low unemployment in that “cone” going up the middle, in the downtown area, and in that area over there in the northeast part of the city. This whole page from the BNIA can give you a better understanding of the probable and very possible link between economic development and homicide.
Now look at this map of children in school who get free or reduced meals, a proxy indicator of financial needs:
The list goes on and on of maps that I could show you that have the same pattern as the homicide pattern up there. And it’s a pattern that keeps repeating itself. Here are the last seven years of homicides mapped and animated:
I cannot possibly be the first one to notice this.
The questions that we need to ask are not only what it is about the neighborhoods with high crime/homicide rates but what it is about the neighborhoods with low crime/homicide rates. Are they more affluent communities where their young people learn about impulse control, about not getting involved in the drug trade, or something else altogether? As I stated above, it’s not just about one factor or two. It’s a whole myriad of things coming together to cause these things.
So, even with such a high homicide rate, do I feel safe in Baltimore? Absolutely.
I’m just going to leave you with this story from the Baltimore Sun about a murder that happened in 2013. I think it shows the difficulties in combating crime and how data and statistics don’t tell the whole story:
“Alexander Moulton completed a four-year apprenticeship program last year to become a painter at the Coast Guard shipyard in Curtis Bay, following in the footsteps of his father, who said his son worked seven days a week to provide for two children.
On Sunday night, the 29-year-old ate dinner with his parents and then headed off to a friend’s house in Central Park Heights, where he was fatally shot inside a vehicle. His death was one of five being investigated by city homicide detectives over a 30-hour period in Baltimore.
Alonzo Moulton can’t make sense of it. His son was never in trouble and he wasn’t involved in drugs, he said. Detectives told him they think it might have been a case of mistaken identity.
On Friday, John Skinner, the deputy commissioner of the agency’s Crime Reduction Bureau, said that while homicides were up, overall crime was down. “There’s a lot of stuff to be optimistic about” as the first quarter of the year concludes, he said. Statistics as of March 16 show total violent crime down 6 percent from last year.
While police data has traditionally shown that the city’s homicide victims have similar criminal records to those suspected in their killings, that trend isn’t holding up this year. A review of court records show a majority of victims did not appear to have been in trouble with the law. Last year, 82 percent of victims had a criminal record, according to police data.
The victims include Twain Robinson, 36, and Quentin Cannady, a 47-year-old Navy veteran who worked as an audio/visual engineer and was killed in a home invasion in Northwest Baltimore. Four of the cases were classified as “domestic-related,” and there have been three juvenile victims.
Moulton’s killing was the third to occur Sunday. On Monday, two more people were killed.”
René F. Najera, DrPH
I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
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