I lived in West Baltimore until age 7 in the same block on North Ave where unrest and rioting occurred after Freddie Gray was fatally wounded in a police van. During my time there, my parents warned me to stay away from the front windows for fear of stray bullets. After attending law school in Washington, D.C., I eventually moved to the District of Columbia where I currently reside. Despite being less than 40 miles apart, the two cities are as different as night and day except when it comes to the recent spike in violent crime.
Baltimore is mostly a blue collar city with almost one fourth of its residents living below the standard of living. Washington with its federal government presence and large influx of millennials residing there bears little to no resemblance to Baltimore. Both cities like many others are experiencing increased spikes in crime not seen in many years—for reasons not clearly known. In Baltimore, the spike was thought to be due to several factors. Former Police Commissioner Anthony Batts believed it was due to stolen drugs taken from a pharmacy raided during the unrest after Gray’s death. Batts was fired by Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake citing his lack of knowledge of the city.
Community leaders and many residents living in areas affected by the outbreak in violence following Gray’s death determined the lack of police on the streets caused the increase in crime. Many residents believed police retaliated following the arrest of six officers for the death of Freddie Gray. Changing police chiefs did little to combat the violence. Baltimore’s violent crime rate in 2015 so far exceeds that of New York despite New York having 7 million more people.
In Washington, DC, no unrest or riots occurred. D. C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, like Baltimore’s former police commissioner, stated the increase in crime was due to drugs—new synthetic ones on the street. Others state no data exists to support her theory. Unlike Baltimore’s former and present police chiefs, D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier rose through the police ranks and has served under three mayors. She is no novice to crime in the city. Lanier blames illegal guns for the rise in violent crime. Rank and file police members state a change in deployment of police and disbanding of vice units by Lanier are to blame. Most criminologists are at a loss for the reasons. D.C.’s 102 killings in 2015 almost equal all of those occurring last year. Baltimore logged in more than 200- so far this year.
Reported violent crime in the District of Columbia does not exclusively occur in lower income areas of the city. In May, Daron Witt allegedly held captive three members of a prominent family plus their house keeper in a more affluent area of the city, later setting the house on fire and killing all four. In another incident, a woman posed as a man to meet a male lawyer for a sexual encounter in a downtown hotel—killing him. And in the 102nd murder occurring in August, the victim died as a result of a stabbing at a neighborhood basketball game.
Baltimore and the District of Columbia are alike in that they want answers. What is clear is that a one size fits all approach will not stop the increased violent crime rates in both cities. Any approach needs to include involvement of community leaders, residents, police, law enforcement officials, criminologists, sociologists, social workers, criminal defense lawyers and prosecutors for starters. The reasons for the increased violent crime rates may be as diverse as the number of violent crimes occurring.
Washington, DC based Debbie Hines is a trial lawyer and former prosecutor.