TIME Crime

What’s Behind Baltimore’s Record-Setting Rise in Homicides

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Colin Campbell—Baltimore Sun/Getty Images Police pick up a pair of tennis shoes after a double shooting in the 2300 block of E. Preston Street in Broadway East on May 24, 2015 in Baltimore, Md.

Emboldened criminals, low officer morale and fears of jail time for police

Baltimore police officers making routine stops or arrests around the city are encountering something very different these days: bystanders, often dozens of them, crowding around and recording their every move.

Since the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black Baltimore resident who died in police custody on April 19, the balance of power between police and citizens in the city appears to have tilted on its axis. Protests following Gray’s death, which at first experienced little police pushback, have led to elevated levels of violence around the city by criminals who some experts say appear emboldened. There were 43 homicides in May, the most in any month since December 1971—when the city was almost one-third bigger than it is today. According to numbers compiled by the Baltimore Sun and the FBI, the average number of monthly murders in May from 2009 to 2014 was 21.

At the same time, arrests have plummeted. In the first two weeks of May, arrests by Baltimore police were down 57% from the year before.

Since six officers were indicted in Gray’s death on May 1, police officers’ concerns over potential prosecution for improper use of force now appear to be holding many of them back from arresting suspects altogether. When they do, they’re surrounded by smartphone-wielding citizens. It’s as if the police are no longer patrolling Baltimore the way they once did; instead, the citizens are patrolling them.

“The cops I’ve spoken to say it’s different now,” said Peter Moskos, a John Jay College of Criminal Justice professor and former Baltimore City police officer. “Cops are saying, If we’re going to get in trouble for well-intentioned mistakes, then f— it, I’m not working.”

Recent events in Baltimore aside, crime often goes up in the summer in cities across the country, not necessarily because the heat drives people to violence but because more people are outdoors and teenagers aren’t in school. Last year, the worst months for violence in Baltimore were May and August, while June and July are generally the deadliest for New York City and Chicago, according to police data.

Like Baltimore, New York City and Chicago have experienced increases in homicides this year. According to the New York Times, shootings in New York are up 20% from 2013 while there have been 98 homicides involving guns so far this year, an increase from 69 in the same period in both 2013 and 2014. In Chicago, there have been 161 homicides this year through May 31, up from 140 in 2013 and 137 in 2014. Officials in New York have blamed the rise in homicides on deadly conflicts between “career criminals” and gang activity in Brooklyn and the Bronx, while Chicago officials say criminals are buying guns in neighboring Indiana and Wisconsin, which have fewer restrictions on firearms, and committing crimes with them in Chicago.

But what’s been happening in Baltimore is different. The number of murders has doubled while shootings are up more than 80%, and most experts say that it’s at least partly linked to a reluctance by police to actively do their jobs.

“There’s a sense that the criminal element is recognizing that the police are in a very defensive position,” said Michael Greenberger, a University of Maryland law professor who studies policing.

Gene Ryan, president of Baltimore city’s Fraternal Order of Police, says that due to the violent nature of Baltimore’s protests in April, many residents now feel as if they can get away with crimes they couldn’t have previously.

“They were allowed to break the law without being arrested,” Ryan said. “The criminal element is taking advantage of the crisis. They don’t believe there’s any recourse.” Ryan added that many officers he’s talked to are concerned that mistakes on the force could potentially get them indicted. “Officers are afraid of doing their job,” he said. “They’re more afraid of going to jail than getting shot and killed right now.”

Morale within the department appears to be at an all-time low. Greenberger said many officers have had to give up vacation time and off-duty hours to respond to crises, while others have left the department altogether. Many on-duty officers are also being pulled away from their normal beats to back up other officers during a stop or an arrest because of the groups of people who gather to record their actions. Police Commissioner Anthony Batts has described situations in which “30 to 50 people” are surrounding officers on duty.

“They’re still doing their jobs, but now these stops takes four officers instead of two because they’re surrounded by people filming them,” Moskos said.

Baltimore also appears to be at least a short-term test case for how much of an effect policing has on crime. Moskos said some experts don’t accept the notion that policing is linked to crime rates and that crime can only be lessened by tackling root causes like poverty or poor education, rather than boosting a police force.

“The link to police and crime has never been fully accepted,” he said. “But it’s not like poverty got worse over night. Those root causes didn’t change over night, but policing did change. There’s absolutely less aggressive policing as crime is going up. Cops are doing less because they don’t want to get in trouble.”

The Freddie Gray incident has also brought to light years of frustration and anger toward the police department. Greenberger argues that much of that anger goes back to policing strategies put in place in the 1990s under former Mayor Martin O’Malley, now a Democratic candidate for president, who focused the police department on a “zero tolerance” strategy that relied on achieving arrest quotas, oftentimes of low-level crimes. That strategy, a version of what is often called Broken Windows policing, is sometimes criticized for leading to racial profiling.

“You cannot underestimate the anger of people in some of these communities,” Greenberger said. “That anger, I believe, has led the police department to be much more cautious in its policing mechanisms.”

Alex Tabbarok, who studies the relationship between crime and policing, said he believes that even if policing had stayed the same, crime would’ve probably gone up because of some of the root causes, like poverty.

“But you can’t have such a dramatic fall in arrests without seeing an increase in crime,” he said.

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