With nearly a killing a day so far this year in her shrinking city of just over 600,000, it’s no wonder that Baltimore mayor Catherine Pugh has cried out, “Murder is out of control”—even before the summer homicide season has begun. She has begged the FBI to help her contain the mayhem, now running at a higher rate than 20 years ago in a city made infamous by the brilliant TV series, The Wire—which unflinchingly depicted archetypal urban lawlessness and corruption—and later by the death of Freddie Gray while being arrested two years ago. If Baltimore cops weren’t the nation’s finest even then, the Black Lives Matter riots that injured 15 of them and the violence following Gray’s death that prompted the governor to call in the National Guard certainly didn’t encourage the Baltimore PD to do its job more fervently.
If the FBI, ashamed and angered by director James Comey’s politicized antics during the presidential election, can start to shake off public contempt by helping Mayor Pugh, that would be a wonderful win-win. But no one should hold his breath. The FBI hasn’t really been an urban crime-fighting force since Prohibition.
Baltimore’s mayor would do much better to call in former New York police commissioner William Bratton as a consultant, both to teach her cops how to do their jobs and to teach her and her administration that no police force can succeed without unflinching political support. And Bratton should spend some time with former Baltimore Sun police reporter David Simon, who wrote The Wire with advice from his homicide-detective friend, Ed Burns, and who knows exactly how Baltimore’s past political corruption corroded lawfulness, honesty, and public accountability throughout the city. He can tell Bratton where the bodies are buried—figuratively and literally.
City Journal readers well know what Bratton would do. He’d activate a Baltimore CompStat, a real-time computerized crime-mapping system that would show where crimes took place and when, so that commanders could deploy troops where needed to stop crime before it happens. He would show police brass how to grill precinct commanders in weekly meetings, using the data to hold them accountable for not forcing down crime in their jurisdictions, and promoting or demoting them accordingly. He would establish an anti-gang unit that would catalog and categorize the majority of the city’s thugs, according to everything from their tattoos to their signature criminal methods. He would teach cops how to stop and frisk people on probable cause that they are carrying guns, to get firearms off the streets and thereby reduce the probability of their being used. He would teach them to enforce laws against disorder in public places—graffiti vandalism, prostitution, low-level drug sales, public drinking and urination, aggressively loud music, and so on—in order to show that police are on the watch and in charge even for small matters, and will therefore crush you for anything really serious. He would encourage them to disrupt the criminal infrastructure, from fences to stolen-car chop-shops, to make it harder for crime to pay. And he would show commanders how to make it hard for cops to be on the take in small ways and large, so that they stop being part of the problem and become the solution.
On this last matter, Bratton would need complete cooperation from Mayor Pugh and lesser city officials. It would be a Herculean task in demoralized Baltimore, always an unruly port city—from the days when its riotous English-hating Irish and French immigrants all but killed Revolutionary War hero General Light-Horse Harry Lee for his opposition to the War of 1812 against Britain, because he thought it an unnecessary waste of soldiers’ lives, right down to more recent times, when congresswoman Nancy D’Alesandro Pelosi’s father and brother were mayors for 16 years between 1947 and 1971. Just as a dying star collapses in on itself so densely that its gravitational force allows no light to escape and it disappears from view, so cities can become so corrupt and crime-ridden that the tax base flees, and decline is hard to stop. Detroit, Camden, maybe even Chicago and St. Louis, come to mind. Baltimore has so many advantages, though, especially its beautiful housing stock so close to Washington, that it ought to be salvageable. But it will take a kind of urban heroism to save it.
So it all depends on whether Mayor Pugh has the stuff of which heroes are made.
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images