Following the June 8 nomination of acting Baltimore City Police Commissioner Richard Worley to fill the position on a permanent basis, as violent crime spiked, one question frequently arose: “Can Baltimore’s new police commissioner keep the city safe?”
Baltimore has had a succession of police commissioners in recent years, some good and some not so good. One constant during their tenures has been how violent crime persists.
In the aftermath of the recent mass shooting in South Baltimore’s Brooklyn Homes neighborhood that left two dead and another 28 injured, we have seen justifiable criticism of the police. The 173-page “After Action Report Regarding Brooklyn Homes Shooting Incident” details failures on the part of Baltimore City Police, but conspicuously absent in the aftermath of the shooting is a fuller discussion on the social conditions — the root causes that provoked what might be the biggest mass shooting in the city’s history.
To hold the police commissioner and officers alone accountable for the Brooklyn Homes incident and for any spike in serious crimes is a misinformed reaction at best and, at worst, disingenuous and scapegoating. Policing strategies more oriented to community engagement are actually reacting to societal influences that they alone cannot conquer, including poverty, racism, inadequate health care, poor educational outcomes and other social determinants that contribute to crime and disorder.
We cannot hope to eliminate the high rates of violent crime and disorder that have been visited on some of our communities unless we pay attention to the principles of Sir Robert Peel, founder of the first modern police force in 1829, who gave equal value to the role of citizens in creating an orderly civic life. We must, according to his principles, give “attention to the duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interest of community welfare and existence.” This can be best accomplished today through actions that leave egos and power grabbing at the door to better build and sustain collaborative relationships between community stakeholders — including police, but not exclusively police — to prevent crime and disorder.
If we keep working in silos competing for increasingly limited resources while protecting turf, we will continue to see the same crime patterns we are seeing today come and go like the rising and ebbing of a coastal tide.
The answer to long-term success lies in recognizing crime and public disorder as a public health problem that is best addressed through cooperative problem-solving and resource sharing. By reframing crime and disorder as a public health problem, police departments join other stakeholders in understanding how the social determinants of health — education access and quality, health care access and quality, economic sustainability and neighborhood and environment — lead to that crime and disorder.
Community leaders can build on the progress that has already been made in the areas of education and health that recognize adverse childhood experiences, lifelong trauma, mental and behavioral health, and the fundamental need to address these health challenges from birth. We know that interdisciplinary models for crisis intervention can work for some mental and behavioral health situations, and we should integrate these critical knowledge areas into public safety policy, training and protocols to reduce trauma and improve community safety.
We need to stop relying on fragmented kneejerk reactions to crime and public disorder that are short-sighted and frustrate both communities and police officers. High rates of arrest and incarceration are signs of failure and not a measure of successful crime fighting. Relying on both as an answer to the problem is like relying on a sea wall to fight the effects of climate change that are producing higher ocean levels — headline-grabbing, short-term and expensive. It also derails the work our police must do to rebuild trust that has waned in recent years, trust that has suffered from a dependence on the overuse of crime-fighting strategies that have led to tragedies like the beating death of Tyre Nichols by the SCORPION unit of the Memphis Police Department in January.
Of course, our police should work diligently to bring criminals to justice. But our overarching goal should be preventing crime and disorder, lowering the number of crimes, and giving space to police to catch and imprison those who break the law. To do so, stakeholders must work in collaboration with our police focusing on long-term solutions that address the root causes of crime, as well as new challenges presented by technology: ghost guns, misuse of artificial intelligence, cybercrime and more.
It is important to “recognize always that the test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, and not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with them.” The principles Robert Peel established in 1829 resonate today. We are all in this together, and working together collaboratively we can make a difference, without leaving those who live in Brooklyn Homes or anyone else behind.
Karl W. Bickel is retired from the U.S. Department of Justice, was previously second in command of the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office and is a former assistant professor of criminal justice. He was a 2022 candidate for sheriff of Frederick County and served on the public safety committee of County Executive Jessica Fitzwater’s transition team. He started his career as a Metropolitan Police Department officer.