If Baltimore had only one homicide per year, that would be too many. Each life is precious, and no family should have to endure the heart-wrenching loss of a loved one due to violence.
I start with this reminder of the sanctity of human life, because media discussions of homicide data and crime stats are often devoid of context and divorced from a deep concern for the victims, grieving families and communities experiencing trauma. My father was murdered when I was 5 years old. Decades later, I live in the wake of that loss. I wrestle with repressed memories and can’t remember entire chunks of my childhood. So I write not just as a researcher, but as a person who intimately knows and shares the grief of families who have lost loved ones to violence.
It is important to examine homicide data to understand patterns and root causes so that solutions can be developed and successes strengthened. While it is too early to celebrate, it is important to recognize that Baltimore is currently flattening its horrific homicide curve.
For context, 2014 was the last full calendar year in which Baltimore recorded no months with 30 homicides or more. A Baltimore Banner report presented Baltimore Police Department crime data that showed fewer homicides than projected had occurred in each month this year. So far in 2023, Baltimore had not recorded 30 homicides in one month, according to that data. In fact, Baltimore has not hit the mark of 30 homicides in a calendar month since July 2022, according to data presented in a Baltimore Sun report.
Future researchers will perform sophisticated analyses to figure out what has been causing the homicide curve to flatten. What we can observe now are the policy factors that coincide with this trend. August 2022 is when the curve began to flatten, so I believe we can eliminate policies initiated, let’s say, in 2020 and that largely ended by the end of 2021. These would include the eviction moratorium, Paycheck Protection Program business loans, or individual pandemic aid.
No significant change in police/community relations seems to have occurred in this period of a flattening homicide curve. Surveys conducted by Morgan State University researchers showed that many residents’ attitudes toward the Baltimore Police Department remain dismal. Surveys were conducted between September 2021 and March 2023, which is inclusive of the period when the curve began to flatten.
According to a Baltimore Banner report, there was a “common thread among the observations: that police officers spend too much time in their cars and do not regularly interact with the people living in the neighborhoods they patrol.” These sentiments were echoed in the department’s own after-action report from the mass shooting on Brooklyn Day, which also found “some police supervisors failed to do their jobs, ignored what was going on around them and did not call for reinforcements.”
A policy factor that was in play during the August 2022 inflection point for flattening the homicide curve is the violence prevention work conducted by the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement. In October 2021, Mayor Brandon Scott allocated $50 million of federal COVID recovery dollars to MONSE to boost its work. In January 2022, former MONSE director Shantay Jackson and her team launched the Group Violence Reduction Strategy. Working hand-in-hand with community groups and members, MONSE’s Community Violence Intervention Ecosystem was established in April 2022.
As Jackson stated when the $50 million allocation was announced, MONSE partnered with community-based organizations to improve public safety. Reflecting a belief that everyday Baltimoreans were partners in violence prevention, Jackson remarked: “The streets, our residents, and our neighborhoods are depending on us. We are more powerful when we work together.”
The circumstances of many economically distressed Baltimore improved when Mayor Brandon Scott took several actions regarding water billing and home tax sales. In April 2022, Scott postponed tax sales and removed owner-occupied homes from the list. In August 2022, Scott adjusted DPW’s water billing policy to help residents who may be dealing with interior and/or underground leaks, which can quickly drive up water bills. In April 2023, Scott announced a 5% discount on water bills for residents.
For many middle- and upper-class Baltimoreans, a water bill is a relatively small expense that barely registers in their lives. But for many lower-income residents living in historically redlined communities, water bills and access to water have striking implications for ownership, well-being and belonging as Baltimoreans. Not only does the looming loss of home ownership provoke toxic levels of stress and anxiety, the very act of shutting off a family’s water is an act of dehumanization.
A March 2023 report by researchers with the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions found that Safe Streets sites, which are operated by MONSE, reduced gun violence significantly (although newer sites were not shown to reduce violence). Other research published by the FDIC Center for Financial Research found that increases in foreclosures were linked to more burglaries, larcenies, and aggravated assaults. Because unpaid and erroneous water bills can lead to tax sale foreclosures, this threatens families with losing ownership of their homes.
Certainly, homicides remain horrifically high and still puncture the peace of tens of thousands of Baltimoreans — especially folks living in redlined neighborhoods in our hypersegregated city. More work remains to further flatten the curve.
Dominant media narratives are steering the public’s focus toward bolstering Baltimore Peninsula development, sprucing up stadiums, redeveloping Camden Yards and renewing the Inner Harbor and downtown. Rarely discussed are the large scale equitable allocations that should be directed toward the stretch of largely Black neighborhoods known as the “Black Butterfly.” These corporate narratives exist to drive billions of dollars in public and private capital to the commercial district, Camden Yards, the Inner Harbor, and the Baltimore Peninsula at the corner of the White L. Because of these billions, there is no doubt the White L will flourish.
If $2 billion is being allocated to lift the White L, then $10 billion or more should be allocated to repair the Black Butterfly. Who will radically provide resources to the Black Butterfly so that Black neighborhoods matter? Will the city and corporate elites allocate another $50 million or more for violence prevention work when COVID recovery funds dry up?
When real resources are allocated for Black Butterfly communities, it promotes healing and decreases the desperation that leads to more homicides.
Lawrence Brown is a research scientist in the Center for Urban Health Equity at Morgan State University. In 2021, he authored “The Black Butterfly: The Harmful Politics of Race and Space in America.” He is also the creator of Urban Cipher, a learning board game.