Murders, Arrests and the Politics of Racial Grievance

Baltimore. Orange patches represent “low arrest” areas, blue high-arrest areas.

The Washington Post had what could have been an interesting idea: Map more than 52,000 homicides and arrests in major American cities over the past decade. Sadly, the newspaper floundered with the data, unable to identify any meaningful trends other than the entirely predictable finding that some cities do a significantly better job of clearing its murders than others. Why that might be, other than some vague talk about the level of trust between police and inner-city populations, the Post had no clue.

Two cities were highlighted graphically in the WaPo’s analysis: Washington’s metropolitan neighbors Baltimore and Richmond. Baltimore stands out as a city dominated by “areas of impunity,” where murders go unsolved and murders are rarely caught. Richmond shines nationally as an example of a city where most murders are solved. Comparing policing practices and community attitudes in the two cities might have been instructive, but the WaPo took a different path.

There are no one-size-fits-all explanations for the variation in arrest rates across all cities, but I will nominate one factor that plays an outsized role: the politics of racial grievance.

Baltimore and Richmond are ideal test cases. Both have large populations of poor African-Americans living in highly segregated neighborhoods. Both have black-majority city councils. Both have black police chiefs and public prosecutors. Richmond has a black sheriff — I’m not sure what the equivalent position is in Baltimore, but whatever it is, I’ll wager that a black politician occupies the post. Thus, we can’t explain away the difference in arrest rates by the suggestion that, say, Richmond doesn’t have same kind of poor, inner city neighborhoods as Baltimore. Nor can we can’t blame the indifference of a white-dominated political class, as might be the case in other cities.

The difference, I submit, is political ideology. In Baltimore the death of Freddie Gray while in the custody of Baltimore police escalated into a highly emotional and widely publicized controversy that fed into the Black Lives Matter narrative of endemic racial injustice. Egged on by the media, Baltimore’s politically progressive mayor and prosecutor appealed to the black population’s resentments and grievances and lambasted the performance of the police. The resulting polarization sowed mistrust between police and blacks. In such a toxic environment, the police enjoy little cooperation from the black population, making it exceedingly difficult to track down murderers and close cases. As a consequence, the murder rate soars.

Richmond’s African-American leaders are notable for their moderation and pragmatism. They don’t stoke racial grievances. While they clearly represent the interests of their poor constituents, their rhetoric supports the idea that “we’re all in this together.” They don’t see politics as a zero-sum game. They see prosperity as a rising tide that lifts all ships. As a consequence, the racial polarization that poisons police-community relations in Baltimore is far less of a problem in Richmond. The payoff is a much higher rate of arrests and convictions of murderers, and safer streets for law-abiding minority residents. Bottom line: By eschewing radical progressive rhetoric, Richmond’s black politicians get better results for their constituents.

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10 responses to “Murders, Arrests and the Politics of Racial Grievance”

  1. djrippert Avatar

    I’ll offer a simpler explanation – Baltimore has so many murders per capita the police can’t keep up.

    Last year Baltimore had 56 murders per 100,00 people, second only to St Louis.

    Richmond is so tiny that it’s hard to get murder rate statistics but I think it was 67 murders from a population of 223,000 for about 30 murders per 100,000.

    I also wonder about the differences in population growth. Baltimore’s population shrank from 651k in 2000 to 612k in 2017 (est). Richmond’s population grew from 198k in 2000 to 223k in 2016 (est). I assume that Baltimore’s shrinking population means that spending on law enforcement is under pressure to decline too.

    However, if I calculated Richmond’s 2017 murder rate correctly it’s pretty damn appalling too. Only 6 major US cities had a higher murder rate in 2017 – St Louis, Baltimore, New Orleans, Detroit, Cleveland and Kansas City. Congratulations Jim – you guys have achieved rust belt levels of murder. And yes … 30 per 100,000 is far worse than Chicago’s 23.8 per 100,000. DC was vastly safer than Richmond at 17.3 per 100,000. For comparison purposes, Fairfax County checked in with 1.6 murders per 100,000 while Henrico County managed to turn in an astonishing 7.7 murders per 100,000. Henrico with 326k in population had half again as many murders as Fairfax with 1.15m people?

    What the hell is going on in the Richmond area, Jim?

    Do we have to take the guns away from you boys and girls down in the River City area until you stop killing each other?

    1. Richmond has always had a murder problem. Twenty-thirty years ago, it had one of the highest rates in the country on a per capita basis. Heck, there was a triple murder in a Church Hill crack house about five or six houses from where I lived. One time I saw a guy staggering down the sidewalk who had been shot in the face. I called the police but by the time they responded three or four minutes later, the guy had wandered off.

      My point is a simple one: If the police had a lower murder clearance rate, there would be more murderers on the street — and even more murders. The east end of Richmond is a socio-economic hellhole. But the attitude of the politicians and the citizens toward law enforcement is much more positive than it is in other cities. Things could be a whole lot worse… as they are in Baltimore.

      1. djrippert Avatar

        Richmond still has one of the highest murder rates in the country on a per capita basis – 30 per 100,000. What the story with Henrico County? 25 murders? Yikes! There were 4 murders in Arlington County in 2017. Isn’t Henrico one of the wealthiest counties in Virginia, especially of cost of living is taken into account?

        1. The west end of Henrico is highly affluent. The east end is poor — a socioeconomic extension of Richmond’s east end. As the city gentrifies, poor people are pushed into adjacent neighborhoods in Henrico and Chesterfield. Poverty and the social pathologies associated with poverty are becoming a significant issue for both localities.

  2. I think Jim’s onto something: the lack of “racial grievance” polarization in Richmond is a big factor, resulting in better cooperation of residents with the police and their investigations, and vice versa. In Baltimore it seems the police are more viewed as an occupying army enforcing somebody else’s laws than as a part of the community.

    Also home ownership differences? I’d be interested in seeing maps of home ownership versus rentals comparing these cities.

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  4. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    Hey, I saw “The Wire.” I don’t even want to visit Baltimore after that….

    Are the courts so lenient in Baltimore that the police don’t feel its worth doing their jobs? Is the difference the fact that police there are unionized? Or few of them live in the city? The delta does beg for an explanation but I do not accept Jim’s, because I think the attitudes he believes are the problem are also present in Richmond. And as DJ notes its not like murder is not a problem here, too.

    Shhhh – DJ! Don’t give away the game! Liberals can only be for gun control as long as it understood they want to disarm Bubba. If the word gets out they also would disarm the ‘Hood their political support might dissipate!

    1. djrippert Avatar

      I loved “The Wire” although “The Shield” was darker. However, the series you need to watch is Flint Town – a Netflix documentary. A big part of the documentary chronicles the challenges of an ever shrinking police force in a shrinking and economically failing city. Crime is up but the number of cops is down. Some 911 calls don’t get any response. Some get delayed responses. It’s depressing and it’s what I think is happening in Baltimore. Baltimore is failing, Richmond is succeeding (albeit at a rate well below its potential). If things continue that way … being a policeman in Richmond has a future while being a policewoman in Baltimore might not have a future. If you’re a Baltimore cop and you get laid off after 8 years what happens to your pension? I assume you never see a dime of it (although I don’t really know).

  5. Andrew Roesell Avatar
    Andrew Roesell

    Dear Jim,

    I wonder what the murder rates were like during the antebellum period and similar demographic for these areas? (Rhetorical question).



  6. Comment posted on behalf of Chuck Woods:

    Police corruption is a huge problem in Baltimore. Richmond cannot be as bad.

    Also, Maryland is a union state. The police union is well organized and politically powerful. Makes it harder to get rid of or discipline the bad apples and that effects public trust in the police.

    In my opinion, one of the best things that ever happened in Virginia was the court decision in the 1970’s eliminating collective bargaining with unions for public employees in the state.

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