by James A. Bacon
Baltimore is the East Coast’s answer to Detroit, a once-prosperous city hollowing out from decades of mismanagement under the Blue State governance model. By the time the Washington Village Development Association (WVDA) filmed its documentary, “Fleeing Baltimore,” in 2013, 31,500 residents had abandoned Maryland’s largest city over the previous decade. Sixteen thousand buildings stood vacant. The documentary described how heroic efforts of middle-class Baltimoreans, both black and white, to clean up trash, combat crime and provide positive experiences for inner city youth were overwhelmed by the ineffectiveness of the city’s criminal justice system.
If conditions were hostile to the middle class two years ago, imagine what it is like now. Last month, a 25-year-old black man, Freddie Gray, died under mysterious circumstances in police custody, raising concerns about police abuse and laying bare a history of strained relations between police and the city’s poor black population. Riots ensued, and now gun violence is up 60% compared to the same time last year. Thirty-two shootings took place over Memorial Day weekend.
Similar explosions in violence are occurring in cities across the United States as as police and inner-city populations react to a series of incidents in which unarmed black men died at the hands of white police. In what what urbanist Heather Mac Donald calls the “Ferguson effect,” police are disengaging from discretionary enforcement activity, the criminal element is feeling empowered and a wave of violence has reversed much of twenty years’ decline in crime rates.
If the surge in murder and violence is foreshadowing of things to come, it will have a tremendous impact on the livability of major urban areas. Two outcomes can be predicted. First, middle-class households with the means to do so will flee the urban core. Second, law-abiding African-Americans living in high-crime neighborhoods but lacking the means to flee will suffer the most.
I’m not disputing the ugly reality that police abuses occur in poor African-American communities. I’m not disputing the fact that police sometimes commit violent crimes themselves, or that African-Americans have a basis for mistrusting the police in some cities. These are real problems that our society must grapple with. But I’m also arguing that the over-reaction to these problems threatens to un-do much of the progress we’ve made in the past twenty years in fighting the scourge of crime and revitalizing our central cities.
Police officers increasingly second-guess themselves in the use of force, writes Mac Donald, writing in the Wall Street Journal. “Any cop who uses his gun now has to worry about being indicted and losing his job and family,” one policeman told her. If police are more timid in applying force, the bad guys will be emboldened in their criminality. She continues:
Even if officer morale were to miraculously rebound, policies are being put into place that will make it harder to keep crime down in the future. Those initiatives reflect the belief that any criminal-justice action that has a disparate impact on blacks is racially motivated.
In New York, pedestrian stops — when the police question and sometimes frisk individuals engaged in suspicious behavior — have dropped nearly 95% from their 2011 high. … Politicians and activists in New York and other cities have now taken aim at “broken windows” policing.
Meanwhile, the move to end “mass incarceration” is gaining momentum across the country. Across the board, Americans are second-guessing the strategies that largely won the “war on crime.” The results will look a lot like Baltimore as productive, law-abiding citizens flee jurisdictions where anarchy and disorder prevail for the safety of suburban jurisdictions.
Watch the WVDA documentary, and you’ll wonder how the city of Baltimore can ever reverse its decline. One of the most basic human needs is a desire to feel safe from physical harm. If the rebound in crime is more than a passing blip — if peoples’ perceptions of crime in American cities undergoes a major change — the human cost will prove devastating and urban jurisdictions once again will slip into the corrosive spiral of rising crime, middle-class flight, shrinking tax base and busted budgets from which we hoped they had escaped.