Policy & Law

Chickens, coming home.

What follows is an exchange from the commentary section after I wrote last year that the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office unwillingness to pursue all but the most winnable murder cases — and a corresponding decline in the number of charged defendants by anywhere from 33 to 45 percent, depending on the time frame — would eventually result in a bump in the homicide rate for the city. Beginning with a certain Mr. Darrow, whose moniker suggests that he may labor at the Mitchell Courthouse, though I have no way of knowing, obviously:

June 18, 2012 at 10:41 p.m.


One question: if what you say here is true, why hasn’t the murder rate in Baltimore skyrocketed? Nine percent seems like it could be a seasonal/sociological blip.

  • June 18, 2012 1t 11:33 p.m.

    DAVID SIMON says:

    Of what, exactly, are you skeptical?

    That the deterrent against repeat violent offenders has been found to have one of the most direct correlations to a city’s crime rate? Sorry, but that’s been established firmly for nearly two decades. As far back as the early 1990s, police targeting of the most serious repeat offenders for violent crimes in cities such as Boston and New York has been proven to dramatically reduce the murder rate. Conversely, take a look at post-Katrina New Orleans where the overall collapse of the District Attorney’s office under Eddie Jordan — and the prolonged lack of successful prosecutions of homicides — led in the ensuing years to the highest murder rates ever seen in modern America. On New Orleans drug corners, taking a murder charge was soon known as “doing your sixty,” given that defendants were routinely released at preliminary hearings at the sixty-day mark.

    Given that the 50-percent decline in Baltimore’s prosecution of murder isn’t yet a year old, the full effect of such continued ineffectiveness is still likely to play out. Unless the criminal justice system rights itself, repeat offenders are going to become even more of a commonality for Baltimore homicide detectives. Given that perhaps as much as 60 percent of Baltimore’s violence is drug-related, and repetitive violence is endemic to the illegal drug trade, this has always been so. Any veteran detective can tell you of dozens of occasions in which a suspect was identified in a drug murder and then found to have been a suspect in prior killings. Do you seriously think a 50-percent decline in murder prosecutions is going to make that phenomenon less common? Or more?

    • June 19, 2012 at 11:02 a.m.


      The fact is, as you state, the murder rate in Baltimore is up 9%: It has in fact not skyrocketed. So the deterrent effect of murder charges is not proven; to the contrary, the 50% reduction in charges appears to be having a moderating effect on murder statistics and overall crime statistics. Zero tolerance, by the way, doesn’t mean “arrest everybody and sort them out later.” The theory (that has worked famously in New York City) holds that if you give enough of the serious offenders a taste of a robust, strict, timely criminal justice system, they do not become repeat offenders. Crime rates drop. Having professionally trained, well-paid journalists covering this and other cultural phenomena does not somehow legitimize the issue. Crime reporting does not deter crime, not now, not 20 years ago, not ever. Enlightened public policy can.

      • June 19, 2012 at 12:52 p.m.

        DAVID SIMON says:

        You’re just not correct. Sorry. I don’t know how else to say it.

        Numerous studies have for two decades shown that repeat violent offenders and the effective targeting of such are the key to controlling the rates of violence in urban areas. In fact, as a law enforcement strategy it might be the only thing that actually works. Community policing? Nope. Zero tolerance? Nada. Those slogans were effective selling platforms. Community policing made everyone feel better without achieving much at all. Zero tolerance approximates the credit that a politician took for the rehabilitation of New York. In fact, it wasn’t filling the Tombs and Rikers that saved that city. It was a two-decades rush of Wall Street profits into the NY real estate market that effectively rebuilt Manhattan and a good chunk of the outer boroughs so that the only thing that could mug you in places like Alphabet City or Morningside Heights was a two-star restaurant. Absent that kind of cash influx, zero tolerance succeeds only in filling jail cells, destroying more families and bankrupting states under ridiculous rates of prison construction. Witness Baltimore. Or California.

        No, solving violent crimes and locking people up who do those crimes at the best possible rate actually works. Why? Because with the advent and growth of the urban drug trade, homicide has become the work of repeat violent offenders. The bar arguments and domestics that once constituted a greater share of a city’s murder rate are now less of a percentage of overall violence. Instead, in cities such as Baltimore, police have acknowledged that between 60 to 70 percent of the homicides are related to drug activity. And if you leave violent offenders on the corners, they continue to kill.

        You can believe otherwise, but from Nathan Barksdale to Roddy Milligan to Vernon Collins to Marlo Bates and ad nauseum, I can not only attest to this phenomenon over the last twenty years, I can use the names of two dozen suspects who went long and hard making bodies until finally someone made an effective case. Dennis Wise alone probably managed to drop twenty bodies before the legendary Rod Brandner finally built a case that got him a life sentence.

        You seem to cling to the notion that merely because there is only (!) a nine-percent bump in the current homicide rate, six months after the state’s attorney elected to charge half as many murders that you have proven something. I’m really unsure what exactly. As I pointed out, the actual deterrent for homicide in Baltimore was already at about a 40-percent rate for arrest and conviction combined. If the State’s Attorney’s machinations reduced that by half, leaving only a 20-percent or 25-percent conviction rate, how many cases were dumped that would otherwise have been viable in 2011? Twenty, thirty? Are you really attempting to suggest that twenty, thirty defendants returning to the corners to do more violence are sufficient, over a six month period, to bump the murder rate more than 10 or 15 percent over the course of a single year? Isn’t a 9-percent bump halfway through 2012 plausible as exactly what I said it was: A harbinger. If the deterrent against murder continues to be halved for another year, and another year after that, and if the street sense on the corners becomes what it became in New Orleans — that to take a murder charge is to do sixty days only until a preliminary hearing dismisses all charges — then check back on your presumptions a couple years from now. At that point, the effect of the systemic failure will be pronounced and geometric.

        Moreover, what are you actually arguing for? Less success in arresting and convicting killers? Are you really suggesting that it doesn’t matter to a city if we take people who kill off the street? That the deterrent to murder is irrelevant? Really? Tell that to the New Orleanians suffering through the worst crime — and some of the worst prosecutorial stats — an American city has ever seen. Or tell it to the people of Boston, who saw their police department, city prosecutors and U.S. Attorney’s office carefully target the 100 most violent offenders aggressively, taking almost all of them off the street in a 12-month period in the early 1990s. The murder rate in Boston fell within two years to the lowest rate in the modern era. That study of how to use retroactive investigation to incarcerate repeat violent offenders and dramatically alter a city’s crime culture is seminal to understanding modern urban enforcement. You seem either indifferent to or ignorant of actual facts and strategies known to law enforcement professionals for decades now.

        As to your attempt to portray the State’s Attorney’s stance as thoughtful and judicious, rather than timid and political — this has led you to some confused misapplications. Witness your strange invocation of zero tolerance and an attempt to somehow redefine that policing philosophy to incorporate the State’s Attorney’s retreat. That makes no sense whatsoever. Zero tolerance, which deals with how departments treat minor felonies and misdemeanors has, um, zero to do with what we are discussing. These are murders. No policing philosophy or strategy ever contemplated argues for anything other than rigor in pursuing those who kill. And murders require the most fulsome and fundamental sanctions that society can muster against the offenders. If you can achieve enough evidence to indict and prosecute, you do so. If you cannot, then you cannot. But to charge only those cases that are surefire wins is self-defeating. A circumstantial case is often a strong case, but it requires hard work, prolonged follow-through and an attentive jury to bring home. And sometimes a verdict will, rightly or wrongly, go the other way. That is what the day in court is for, after all. But running away from the tough cases solves nothing. And the seeming diffidence of your comments with regard to what is at stake in this struggle, for society and the violence that threatens that society, strikes me as, well, remarkable.

        I want to be careful not to use any ad hominem to prevent you from pursuing your chosen line of argument, but, from your handle of Clarence Darrow, I have to ask, are you an attorney? Do you practice criminal law in Baltimore? And if so, are you affiliated with the State’s Attorney’s Office? Because that could, perhaps, explain some of this. Or not. But I am now, I admit, curious.

        • June 20, 2012 at 11:27 p.m.

          CLARENCE DARROW says:

          One sidereal year from today, on the summer solstice, assuming that this blog is still in existence , that the Baltimore City State Attorney’s policy has not changed, and that Baltimore’s clearance stats are the same, we will revisit Baltimore’s murder rate and the issue of the “stat.”. At that time, appropriate apologies and retractions can be extended. You are a gentleman;. I take it you will honor this appointment.


          *         *          *

          July 3, 2013 at 3:37 p.m:

          DAVID SIMON says:

          It is now a sidereal year later, with the solstice past us. As the gentleman known as Mr. Darrow, whoever he is, is a bit late to our engagement, let me summarize the situation as it presently exists: By the end of 2012, Baltimore saw a 10 percent bump in the homicide rate, giving up the previous year’s gains and returning the raw total from 197 to 217.  Currently, after a spate of summer violence, the 2013 bump  has the city averaging between 230 and 240 murders in a year.  So, currently, eighteen months after joining the above argument, Baltimore is now nearing 40 incidents per 100,000, so that murder rate is up nearly 20 percent from where we last left it.

          The response by Baltimore leaders has been exceptional in both its disconnection from the fundamental solutions and its callow predictability:

          1)  They reassigned the police spokesman for telling everyone that everything was fine, when in fact, that is what others in authority have been saying for quite a while.

          2)  The police department has rushed to show the flag, throwing hundreds of officers into visible street patrols to reassure the citizenry. This is S.O.P. for police commissioners everywhere, despite the fact that every law enforcement study for the past quarter century shows that heightened patrol, while reassuring, is virtually meaningless when it comes to reducing violent crime.  The 911 dynamic is such that we long ago reached diminishing returns in our quest to bring officers to the scene in time to proacvtively prevent or interrupt crimes.  It doesn’t work — not consistently enough to reduce crime.

          3)  The police commissioner says that they are doing all they can,  that there is a plan and, oh yes, that it isn’t entirely up to the police deparment to respond to the crisis, that a whole array of social forces and problems having nothing to do enforcement strategies are in play.  (Little was said of all these social forces when two years ago, the department claimed credit for lowering the murder rate; then it was enforcement all the way.)

          4.  The state’s attorney, Mr. Bernstein, remains mute to his role in all of this.

          Well, get it straight:

          Only one thing has been shown to reduce violent crime consistently, based on every bit of law enforcement history over the last quarter century. From around the country,  study after study, and example after example, shows this to be so:

          Urban murder is a recidivist dynamic, rooted in the culture of an illicit drug trade and all of the violence that is endemic to that trade.  When you lock the right guy up, and keep him locked up, he stops killing.  When you don’t, he stays on the street, and shoots people until you do lock him up.  So that now, in 2013, we are not only contending with all of those 17 to 20-year-old shooters who are graduating to their first serious violence, we are contending with 30 to 40 percent more of the 19 to 22-year-old shooters who are still out there on the streets because city prosecutors decided that any case they couldn’t win without absolute certainty was a case they were unwilling to charge and further develop and take into a city courtroom.  A cursory look at the criminal histories of many current murder suspects in the courthouse computer reveals some of this truth; a more careful perusal of the 2011 and 2012 casefiles of homicide investigators — if made public — would reveal significantly more.

          Mr. Bernstein’s record and its net effect are now in evidence.  And his belated attempts, after this was first argued last year, to rush back and charge a modestly better percentage of older cases — though they were in no way different prosecution files from when his office first passed on those cases — was reactionary, belated and telling.  When a new police commissioner comes to you, in the wake of such criticism, and personally asks you to charge five homicide cases that your office otherwise declined to prosecute, and you agree, what does that say?  That the cases suddenly improved?  That you are an aggressive prosecutor?  That the campaign you ran against the incumbent, declaring she was not as aggressive as you would be — that this was an honest critique?  Or does it affirm that your campaign rhetoric was hollow, and that you are, in fact, less aggressive now that the job is yours.  Even with Mr. Bernstein’s belated effort to charge some of the older cases, the number of homicide defendants going through the doors of the Mitchell courthouse remains about a third less than under the previous administration of the office.

          A state’s attorney who fears a stet or acquittal in murder cases more than he values the fundamental deterrent of a conviction cannot help but produce more violence over time.  And while not all of the current crime rate is attributable to the stat-driven machinations of the state’s attorney — there are other systemic problems in the city, to be sure — neither will Mr. Bernstein be any part of the solution until he releases the reins and once again allows homicide commanders to share the responsibility for charging cases with his office.  Two successive homicide commanders ended their tenure over Mr. Bernstein’s change in policy; one was demoted and the next quit, and now, here we are counting bodies, having squandered whatever momentum in crime suppression was evident two years ago.

          I abide in a most Christian love for the other fellow, and I abhor any man who journeys so much as a step or two laterally to smugly twist the blade of comeuppance into another’s entrails, who revels in the snide and petty gratifications of schadenfreude.  A certain restraint, nay, even dignity requires that all of us engaged in civic and civil debate eschew the temptation to such. Better to reflect dispassionately, to encourage insight and meaningful change, to let the past speak for itself without further provocation.  More flies with sugar, the other cheek, and so on and so forth.

          All that said, I fucking told you so.


  • What happened with Baltimore murder rates this year? A fluke, right?

    And if the contention that political system elects efficient criminal justice professionals, why does any city of rational voters have any issues of clearance?

    • First half of the year, we are down, after a two year rise. And it is notable. Good to have you back, Mr. Darrow. After the lst year of increase, you did not return as promised, but notably you arrive now. Well, if at year’s end, this weather holds, I am open to all suggestion, because it is a notable decline.

      I won’t even claim that the heavy winter kept the violence on the corners muted, because January and early February were the more violent months of the year. What do you credit for the lull?

      Don’t explain that city police finally figured out how to police homicide, because there’s been no notable change in strategy, save for flooding areas using extra patrols, which has never been an effective deterrent in the past. There has been a modest improvement in the charge rate for the S.A.O. since my criticism, but not so much as to suggest that the agency has turned some kind of corner.

      But I’m confused by your second sentence. What are you asking specifically?

  • Been a little slammed and unable to comment, but wanted to write quickly from the perspective of a current prosecutor in a large urban area.
    I hate “conviction rates” and their ilk with the fire of a thousand suns. All they do is teach new prosecutors not to try hard cases. Also, every case, every jury, is different. What we do isn’t sport. You don’t get a batting average. Keeping up with it in that fashion is really just a combination of arrogance and ass covering.

    In addition, I am puzzled by what seems to be a lack of follow up investigation in your State’s Attorney’s Office. Not sure how it works elsewhere, but in my office homicide works up a case just enough to get it past probable cause, because they are drinking from a fire hose and can barely keep up. We then get the case and myself and a DA investigator fill the gaps and make it stronger before indictment and trial. We don’t just kick it back and say “do better”. (that’s for fancy federal prosecutors in buildings with functioning elevators).

    • Exactly the dynamic in Baltimore or it was until Mr. Bernstein took office and halved the number of murder defendants charged in a single year.

      And here’s something else that may be recognizable to you: When you tell detectives who have sufficient probable cause to charge to make the case better — without charging the murder — you are effectively taking about 30 percent of their investigative arsenal off the table. Why? Because if 60 percent of your murders are drug-related then your ability to draw more witnesses and cooperation from a drug-saturated neighborhood depends on first removing the suspect from the environment. Until that happens, some witnesses will be too intimidated to come forward. And on a more basic level, the art of interrogation creates a specific window at the moment at which one suspect is told that he will be charged and other conspirators are told that they can either be codefendants of witnesses depending on their immediate cooperation. If a prosecutor never lets that moment happen, then that window remains shut.

      Any prosecutor who claims that he or she only wants to charge the crime when the case is entirely assured has, in fact, crippled the deterrent even at the investigative stage. When I hear Mr. Bernstein defend his caution to the extent he does, I am compelled to wonder if he actually understands the dynamics of urban death investigation.

      • I actually pulled in one of my co-workers to read your reply.
        Dead on accurate. Your post perfectly illustrates the reality of homicide investigation versus some number crunching spread sheet that makes a good press release.

        In addition to the reasons you cite, our cases routinely get better once the bad guy is locked up. Why? Because bad guys are rarely members of MENSA. They can’t help but talk about their crimes on a jail phone, that’s recorded. Also, there is no honor among thieves, stick up kids and shooters. Sure as anything a shooter will be bragging to his cell mate, who will then snitch on him to us. Finally, the longer they are out the easier it is for witnesses to be paid off, intimidated, or killed. Happens every day here in the city too busy to hate.

        • I’ve witnessed dozens of cases go from one-witness files to three witnesses and a recovered weapon in the two hours after detectives were able to tell all the principals that so-and-so was being charged with murder, and guess what, it’s time to start telling the truth or take a charge your ownself.

          I wish that somewhere, even in defense of his record, the state’s attorney in Baltimore would say something to convince me he knows how a murder case is actually built.

  • I wish you lived in Texas. I posted a piece on my website in February 2011 entitled “Criminal” where I reference the State Legislature cutting the budget allocations to criminal justice by 12%. As someone in education, I know I compete directly with criminal justice for tax dollars. That competition is of great concern to me.

    I wish my dad were alive to read this piece. He was a small town attorney in Texas. He worked his share of criminal cases. I imagine this is what he would say: the criminal justice system in Texas is being choked to death. There is no money. Folks don’t have a real grasp how difficult it is to try a case given the rules of evidence. It is hard getting witnesses who will respond in a convincing way. Police budgets are getting cut. You pay for what you get-holes in evidence. You often have smart criminals-they don’t actually do the murders themselves. You have criminal boutique firms who work every angle. ( My dad retired to Duvall County in South Texas and he used to watch in amusement and bewilderment as defense attorneys would file Motions for Change of Venues because South Texas juries were notorious for light sentences.) Plus all the criminal attorney needs to is create a reasonable doubt. You parse an event to death you can create reasonable doubt over anything. It is a sad confluence of factors. Just like you said in “The Wire.”

    I would wager a bet that sur, Mr. Darrow is an attorney, and that he no longer works for Baltimore. He is now employed as someone’s In House Counsel making twice the salary plus stock options.

    • My wife was a reporter for the San Antonio Light for several happy years. She has great affection for the state, or at least those small, surrounded blue parts of it. But really, she is still a little bit Texan in some residual ways. I often have trouble reconciling the external political appearance of the state (the recent governors, the legislature and its redistricted fascism, the assembly-line use of the death penalty) with her love of it. But then again, I love Baltimore. And a lot of people don’t quite understand why.

      I love Doug and Augie, though. And Robert Earl Keene. So I’m trying.

  • Mr. Simon,

    I’d been under the assumption most if not all the detectives from “Homicide: a Year on the Killing Streets” (Harry Edgerton, Tom Pelligrini, et al) were long since retired from the force. I was pleased to learn Terrence McLarney managed to navigate the reefs and shoals of department politics to become the major in command of Homicide, though distressed to read he was demoted and reassigned after crossing swords with State’s Attorney Bernstein. Did Terry quit afterward or is he still serving with Baltimore PD?

    • Terry is still a lieutenant working in the Northern District.

      Jay Landsman is retired but has been working toward a second pension as a Baltimore County detective, working burglaries.

      Unless I am forgetting someone, they are the last of the Mohicans. Although there are a number of veterans from that era who are working as investigators in other capacities, albeit not as sworn officers.

  • Your argument against the strategy currently playing out in the city’s state’s attorney’s office is right on. Given the city has been either unable or unwilling to adequately handle the crime problem as effectively as Boston, for example, why hasn’t the State stepped in? Certainly the State of Maryland has jurisdiction as to major crimes that happen within the municipalities. Clearly the strategy is harming the citizens of Maryland who live in the CIty of Baltimore. The attorney general of Maryland or the Governor of Maryland have some way of interceding, do they not?

    • Couple things.

      When last I checked — and that had to be a decade ago, so perhaps I am wrong here — the State Police only had jurisdiction in Baltimore for drug investigations. They do not have jurisdiction in Baltimore, or any other number of more urban Maryland counties, for death investigations or shooting investigations, unless they catch something on view.

      Further, it would be dangerous to overestimate the criminal investigation capabilities of the CID branch of the Maryland State Police. Most of their personnel are experienced at highway enforcement, and with the exception of certain rural barracks where the MSP maintains a CID component because there is minimal police coverage, you are speaking about a limited number of investigators at CID Pikesville.

      There isn’t much there to tap. The BPD has the primary responsibility here. And the state’s attorney for Baltimore.

  • I think you wrote about this before, David, but it’s worth bringing up in light of this discussion:

    When Prosecutors are handling charging and Police are “clearing” their cases by arrest, we create a statistical black hole. What this means, in practice, is that Police refuse to continue investigating post-arrest and Prosecutors are left with thin cases and very few investigative powers. Murders and attempted murders get the spotlight and actually get some of the best Police resources in the City, but there are a lot of divisions where the thought of Police work (e.g. merely identifying witnesses for future interviews or going to the crime scene and collecting physical evidence) post-arrest is laughed off by officers without a signed over time slip.

    Though not a prophet, David, you certainly predicted the very real outcome of the statistical black hole. Police clear by arrest, Prosecutors don’t have enough to charge, and there is one more bad guy on the street.

    • Exactly so.

      This “black hole” is exemplified by the fact that police take credit in their clearance rate for any case that produces an arrest — even if that arrest is on such weak evidence that it does not go to indictment and results in a dismissal. Meanwhile, the state’s attorney’s office only calculates his conviction rate based on indicted cases. Anywhere from 20 to 40 homicide cases in a given year — between 10 and 20 percent of the total — might have produced a case for which neither side of the criminal justice system took any responsibility. Police had an incentive to charge a too-weak case, and prosecutors suffered no penalty.

      By unilaterally asserting control over the charging process, Mr. Bernstein has eliminated the police incentive to do the wrong thing here. That is entirely true. On the other hand, there is now zero pressure on his office to charge anything other than the most winnable cases, as the investigation of every murder that he doesn’t charge is in no way his responsibility. That the mayor of the city allowed this dynamic to continue is incredibly poor leadership.

      As I indicated in the earlier post, this situation is easily resolved: City hall declares demands that the police can charge crimes unilaterally, but in consultation with prosecutors — and further, that police will take no credit for a clearance unless the case can be indicted. And the state’s attorney counts every case charged in his convictions rate. Now, there is no black hole. Now, both ends of the system are responsible for all.

      The solution to the black hole is so basic and obvious that there is almost no chance that either the police department or the state’s attorney’s office will achieve a responsible compromise and implement it for the sake of institutional responsibility and accountability. City Hall — and the mayor, expressly — could do so, with the support of the Circuit and District Court judges. But that would require leadership.

  • I had challenged mr. Fenton to start more investigative reporting: what percent of shootings lead to an arrest, what percent of arrests to convictions, and most importantly: what percent of those arrested were born to teenage mothers and had no real father figure.

    You are focused on the shootings, what about assaults,robberies and rapes that are destroying our city, and go unreported by our ” newspaper”

    • If you want to find out about case closures and convictions I’m already keeping track of that here: http://www.chamspage.blogspot.com/2013/01/2013-baltimore-city-homicides.html . Those that have been arrested for murder/manslaughter have the word “charged’ after their name. Those that have been convicted do not.

      One would have to find the birth certificate of every homicide victim to determine the age of the mother to determine whether a mother was a teen or not, something that no crime reporter has the time, patience or budget to do. And there is no way to determine whether someone has a “father figure” or not. And if one assumes that most black children don’t have a daddy you might think again. Pew Research, in a 2011 Study, tells us that black fathers who don’t live in a home with their children make more of an effort to see their kids than white and Latino fathers.

  • It is sad that the media for the most part has given Gregg Bernstein a free pass to be largely ineffective in his position when the same media filed at least weekly articles slamming Patricia Jessamy (deservedly so, but this current administration warrants the same). Apparently the only time Baltimore media can bring themselves to care now is when Mr. Simon opines on the issue. I am involved in Baltimore’s criminal justice system and I have watched as many of the best, most experienced prosecutors have left Bernstein’s employ to Baltimore’s detriment. As far as I can tell, the only thing he has done during the past two years is spend a lot of money on a new office building and create the “Major Investigations Unit,” which most of us consider to be a joke that wastes resources prosecuting nonsense cases. It is frustrating that Bernstein hides from the media and the media lets that fly with no accountability.

  • Since you posted this, I’ve been debating the merits of your argument with some smart, committed Baltimoreans who are familiar with the history on this topic. The upshot of the discussion is that while you are correct about the numbers, the State’s Attorney’s Office under Pat Jessamy suffered from a host of other dysfunctions and was arguably much less effective than it is now.

    They assert:

    a) Jessamy’s office was notorious for prosecuting people on trumped-up charges that did not lead to convictions, either because the charges were ludicrous or the evidence was lacking — and that she was thus propping up her prosecution count statistic,

    b) Jessamy expressed a stated desire to avoid too much prosecutorial focus on “young black males,” when obviously the race of criminals is irrelevant; criminals are criminals and should be treated fairly and on the merits of the evidence,

    c) there was a history of friction between Jessamy’s office and BPD, and it’s not at all clear it was any better than it is now, though you may be correct that homicide commanders probably had more of a role in developing cases,

    d) the notion that conviction rates (or prosecution rates, or indeed consequences in general) have any deterrent effect on Baltimore’s current and prospective criminal population is laughable at best; and that the perceived deterrent is somehow less now and is leading to an uptick in crime seems highly unlikely. Baltimore’s thugs sadly expect to live fast and die young; they are not doing the math and worrying over the machinations of the SAO. They do what they do — and think later.

    e) BPD deserves some scrutiny too. We did well under Fred Bealefeld and his “bad guys with guns” policy. What’s happening under Batts’ leadership? He’s said he’s pursuing the same strategy, but what does that mean quantitatively? Are we simply failing to lock up as many “bad guys with guns” as before, or is this population growing in size? Shouldn’t Batts leadership be questioned too? Why focus on only Bernstein?

    f) Clearly there is room for improvement in cooperation between SAO and BPD. That will always be true. As one commenter put it, “And the Astros could be a better baseball team.” Bernstein could clearly speak to his strategies and perhaps allay your concerns. Surely such openness would augment the civic dialog.

    Hindsight is 20/20, and it’s easy to look backwards after a material increase in crime rates looking for reasons why. Bernstein or Batts’ policies may have a causal link to this increase — or they may not. It may just be a random “shitstorm” (a nod to our German friends).

    So your analysis, while not meritless, doesn’t quite ring true; or at least doesn’t account for the nuance of the situation. The burden is on the analyst to look at all of the factors at play and demonstrate a mechanism of action behind a proposed causal link. You are suggesting “deterrent has decreased, therefore leading to more brazen action by criminals, who are rational actors.” I don’t buy it.

    What you have on your hands here is a correlation. You need to do more than you have done so far to demonstrate causality. Keep going; we want to know more.

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  • To simply throw out these murder cases is ludicrous and does nothing but hurt the citizens of Baltimore. However, what about the state of juror room in the city? I fear there are enough disengaged people on these juries, that even if the state attorney’s office gets more aggressive, we could see little results in getting these violent folks off the streets. Overall, there are enough people in town that care, but in the randomness that is jury selection, I am not sure enough of those people will be on the juries for these trials.

    All that said, to not even try is lazy, dangerous, and unfair to the people living in the neighborhoods where these drug wars occur…and that’s exactly what’s going on here.

    • As I said, the timidity of Mr. Bernstein’s office isn’t the only systemic issue here. There are others in the city.

  • Wowza. Mr. Simon, I kind of wish you would have been wrong. I have to admit, I have no idea what the parallel story is in my own town. That scares me.

    Thanks for the eloquence.

  • I agree with your arguments, but I worry that the way that we talk about crime is painting ourselves into a corner. Drug crime, from selling dope to killing competitors, is essentially an economic crime. Increasing the risk vs. benefit is basically saying the same thing as ‘deterrence’, but I think it gets to the crux of the matter while talking about deterrence treats all crime committed for economic reasons in a piecemeal fashion, which is why we have so much blowback. By deterring the selling of drugs we artificially elevate their prices. And with weak criminal justice systems we depress the cost for killing people. At some point in the middle we have created a system where the cost of a life is less than that of almost trivial economic benefits in the drug trade. And we have been so successful that we have created professionals–the recidivist murders you mentioned. In an economic sense, there will always be a point where murdering someone is profitable, but we can choose how profitable it is. Banning guns, witness protection, good prosecutors, targeting recidivists, etc., increase the cost to perform a murder, while legalizing drugs would decrease the economic benefits gained from a murder. In this sense, the drug murder rate is what we choose it to be. And talking about it with this terminology clearly makes people who talk about Zero Tolerance (TM) look incredibly stupid.

    • My arguments against drug prohibition are elsewhere, throughout this website and in a great deal of my television work.

      But given the reality of drug prohibition right now, there is little that we can do as a society but address the resulting violence. The taking of human life demands high sanction in any civilized society.

        • We both do. Molly Ivins travels well beyond the borders of the Lone Star State.

          We were both newspaper people, after all.

          In what city are you living now?

          • Austin, where it’s getting real in the legislature. Perry. Perry. He’s vetoed bills he didn’t even mean to veto. I miss Molly. She’d have a field day with this session.

            • I will write you next time I come through.

              I’ve done some stuff at UT now and again, and also with SXSW. My wife has wanted to show me San Antonio for a decade now, so I will likely get to your end of things soon enough. I remember an amazing Mexican restaurant on the main drag, down the hill from the state house. You walked through the kitchen to use the men’s room, but the food was fantastic. Gone now for a parking garage or something I am told. Also, the Salt Lick, but I prefer Smitty’s in Lockhart. And, oh yeah, there’s a pretty good southern cooking joint in a strip mall just off the highway, north of the statehouse. Forget the name, but I could find it again in a pinch.

              Yeah, food whore here.

              I was there for a few days with my son when I was given the William Randolph Hearst award (!) by the UT comm school, the same year that a progressive outfit in L.A. gave me the Upton Sinclair award. The confluence of those two honors certainly had both men spinning in their crypts, especially if you know anything about the ’34 election in California. I couldn’t resist coming to Austin and thinking that somewhere in the depths of hell, Hearst felt a little bit mocked. Anyway, I had four days in Austin and learned to like it. I get a sense that the city keeps growing because all the UT grads don’t wanna go home to the rest of Texas.

              Perry is an astonishing fool, but a primal one. He may still go national; you can never know. You Texans have a habit of launching political genius and foolery both to dizzying heights. You do everything big, or so we are always told. And yes, I like to imagine Ivins and Richards taking that heroic legislator to the bar after her filibuster and refusing to let her buy a round.

              • Please let me know if you are in town. I would love to meet both of you. Maybe you could come to the Austin Screenwriting Festival in October. Last time I checked Eric Overmyer was going to be there and talk about “Treme”.
                (And you must indulge your wife and go to San Antonio. It is so beautiful.)

                A few years ago Brian McCall was at the Texas Book Festival talking about his book “The Power of the Texas Governor,” and he said Perry has amassed more power and influence than any Governor in the history of the state. He is a great politician in that sense. He is very friendly to filmmakers. I know he met with Peter Bogdanovich on a visit here. He is very interested in getting film and television projects here. If you come to Austin you too may get an invitation. And might I add if my brother or my uncle
                knew I was poking fun at Perry, they would give me a real tongue lashing.

        • Ivins would have indeed loved this glorious revolt in Texas. I write primarily about the culture surrounding breast cancer and often return to Ivins’ profound assessment of the rotten disease. Particularly this: “Having breast cancer is massive amounts of no fun. First they mutilate you; then they poison you; then they burn you. I have been on blind dates better than that.” She was amazing.

          • Lost my sister to breast cancer. She refused to give it the dignity of calling it breast cancer. Her favored phrase was “this piece of shit.”

            Fought it for ten years, long enough to raise her son for a decade so he would have that in his corner.

            Ivins wrote lines in her columns that made me sick with writer-envy.

            • Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. It’s terrible. I was diagnosed when my kids were 6 and 8 – I feel grateful to be here 5 years later. Too many others aren’t. Nothing is more frightening than the idea of leaving your kids behind.

              Ivins’ voice was crucial here to counteract the mainstream message that the disease can be cured by mammography, hope, or pink ribbons on Cheetos in October. So I keep on quoting her.

  • I live in the Vancouver area, and previously lived in Greenbelt MD, so I have some connection with this topic in two different ways.

    There are 2 main categories of murderer: where the murderer and victim knew each other prior to the killing (and were even friends) and stranger murders (where the killer is an agent of another party, possibly a contracted hit or part of a gang punishing another gang for a “business dispute”.

    In broad terms stranger murders equals organized crime and the rest are the normal affairs of any society and as somebody said already can only be addressed by other parts of society. In particular, when a husband kills his wife’s lover, that likely to be his first homicide (but not his last if he is dragged though the prisons for decades). But for organized crime, killing is a part of the enforcement of business rules not done through the courts. Here we come up against the principle that particular homicides of this kind are not necessarily cleared, but on the other hand the killers themselves are in a dangerous occupation and most either get killed by other killers or caught. So the public can be callously indifferent because they’re only killing other members of organized crime. It’s only when others get caught in the crossfire that people care.

    I’m not offering this as a basis for letting drug enforcers go unpunished. I’m offering this as the booby prize that we are offered for this activity. Of course there are plenty of other conventional serial killers, not part of criminal organizations. I have no insight about how to catch those or get them convicted.

    Here in Vancouver, going back 10 years, the rate of stranger murder was well below 50%. In simple terms most murder victims knew their killers and the disputes were personal. Now we’ve reached 50%. Our city is similar in size to Baltimore itself (but the DC/Baltimore area is far larger in area and population). According to what I read above, Baltimore’s stranger murder rate has reached 70%. I just wonder how much gang-to-gang violence is accounts for this — and therefore relatively few bodies that anyone else cars about. Of course that’s a callous attitude — the penalty for methyl dealing is not death

    To summarize, although people may get away with particular crimes, including homicide, those who drop a lot of bodies are usually punished one way or another — by the courts or death as someone else’s hand. That’s why the practise mentioned above of clearing other homicides at the same time, without specific proof — is somewhat encouraging — if you believe it’s accurate –but also a tool to manipulate crime statistics of that’s what your goal is.

    • The drug prohibition has created a permanent and genocidal rate of violent death among the American underclass. It has created the culture of inner-city violence in America, or at the least, it has been feeding that culture steroids for the last half a century. That is understood.

      But these are human beings, and vulnerable ones. And even within the context of drug involvement, any society that fails to respond to the murder of a human being without high sanction and serious concern is uncivil, amoral and in decline.

    • David would know much more about this than I do, but it seems to me that the reason people get involved in the drug trade is because they need a way to put food in their bellies just like everybody else. It also seems to me that the people who get murdered while working within the drug trade are usually poor, street level, young adults. Not the guys at the top who make all the money. Those cats are admired by almost all of society for the simple fact that they are rich. Even skin colour seems less of an issue now as long as you’ve got lots of dough. I don’t and have never understood how and why we can so callously and despicably write of entire generations of people not just because they’re poor but mostly because they try to put a little money in their pockets by selling substances that many of us have done or do engage in recreationally. Or at the very least, know and even enjoy the company of, someone who does. I mean, if it were only the poor doing drugs there would almost be no such thing as a drug trade. Again, I’m sure David would know more than I about that.

      Can you David, please perhaps tell me, or speculate even why the Left no longer engage in ending this ridiculous “war.” Why it’s only the paranoid and somewhat sinister Libertarians (who don’t give a shit about humanity, by the way) are still willing to fight this insanity? Isn’t what we put in our bodies part of the “pursuit of happiness.” When I can find some stats like this in 30 seconds:

      Cause of death (Data from 2009 unless otherwise noted)1 Number
      All Causes, 2009 2,437,163
      Diseases of Heart 599,413
      Malignant Neoplasms 567,628
      Chronic Lower Respiratory Diseases 137,353
      Cerebrovascular Diseases 128,842
      Poisoning 41,592
      Drug Overdose (2010)2 38,329
      Intentional Self-Harm (Suicide) 36,909
      Septicemia 35,639
      Motor Vehicle Accidents 34,485
      Firearm Injuries 31,347
      Alcohol-Induced 24,518
      Pharmaceutical Drug Overdose (2010) 22,134
      All Illicit Drugs Combined (2000) 17,0003
      Opioid Analgesic Overdose (2010) 16,651
      Homicide 16,799
      Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) 9,406
      Viral hepatitis 7,694
      Cannabis (Marijuana) 0
      – See more at: http://www.drugwarfacts.org/cms/Causes_of_Death#sthash.GcPI2xZg.dpuf

      And yet, the Left is still battling(rightly) for women to choose to terminate a pregnancy by saying “it’s my choice what I do with MY body,” I mean, do they not care about millions of black men rotting in jail for doing something many of us(regardless of skin colour) do(meaning: use drugs of some kind) everyday?

      Sorry for such a long rant I get very upset about this insanity. Especially now with the whole corporate jail system, etc…

      • There are lots of unconvincing generalizations of why people get involved in the “drug trade” but four points stand out

        [a] It’s financially very rewarding at least at first, even for middle class kids
        [b] Your peer group gives you the “in”. That peer group may be centred around an “underclass” but here in Vancouver the underclass (the people that occupy 50% or more of prison cells) are natives, but none of the drug gangs centre on them, except for those operating on native reserves.
        [c] It’s a very dangerous lifestyle at the upper layers at least
        [d] Once into a gang, the police may be the least of your troubles. Even gang leaders who go to the extent of dissolving their connections, and moving to another country (India is a popular choice here in Vancouver) are not safe from retribution

        To reinforce this final point I’m reading a novel/memoir called Daaku: A Gangster’s Life. The book opens as he wakes up in a hospital after been shot nearly to death by members of his own crew. He grew up in a Sikh “ghetto” suburb, where the word means that that area is a large % Sikh but people of all races are welcome there, and Sikhs are welcome throughout the rest of the city. This area is also very close to the US boundary and thus is useful for smuggling.

        • So your position is that because you live in Vancouver you don’t believe in an underclass. And that everyone who sells drugs is at least moderately rich so if they get murdered and the cops don’t care it doesn’t matter because they got rich playing a dangerous game? You sound like you’re in the middle of writing a bad film script or novel. Not reading one. I’ve actually known people who’ve done this for a living and trust me, the world they were brought up in left them prepared to do little else. I also live in Canada, a town called Toronto and I can tell you,sir. that it is your generalizations that the underclass here, in my neighbourhood, that I see on the streets every night, would find your generalizations not only unconvincing but laughable. If you choose to believe that the majority of people sell drugs. I don’t think I said any of the things you’ve written in your reply and frankly I realize now that I don’t think either of us are sure of what it is YOU are trying to say. I’ll assume you think like so many ignorant people that we just view people we don’t share a common lifestyle with as at best, entertainment. And at worst, a group of people to ignore and allow to kill themselves off?

          • I’ll try to stick to the main points.

            Certainly there is a historical underclass in Vancouver — the natives. As I said, they occupy more than 50% of all prison cells here, despite being under 5% of the population.

            The highest rates of crime in BC (not Vancouver) are found on native reserves, and the police in BC have essentially no record of dealing with that (as elsewhere in Canada). There is no buy-in on the reserves to the police being more helpful than the problem. Hence drug problems and violence can be acute. But that’s a hidden world. Only things like the Pickton affair or the Trail of Tears give any glimpse into that. It’s rarely reported that Pickton preyed primarily on native women [Americans reading this: Pickton was the most notorious serial killer in Vancouver in modern times, and among other things lack of cooperation among police forces kept him on the loose at least 2 years longer than necessary]

            But what about the drug gang networks in Vancouver? The participants do not NECESSARILY come from an underprivileged background, i.e. from the “underclass”, however you define it. Other things in their background (such as violence in the home, drug abuse by the parents, etc) may contribute to them trying to make “extra money” this way. And there is evidence that several prominent “gangs” in Vancouver are all-white. Others are not, and still others are now mixed. But I don’t want to get into exactly what all the gangs are — except that there’s a variety and their members come from a variety of backgrounds in every respect including socioeconomic. This is the contrast to David Simon’s mention of violence in the “underclass”. That violence is active here in Vancouver, of course, and sometimes becomes spectacular such as when a Starbucks near me was hit – the victim a well-known white skinhead gangmember. That event caused a minor ripple in the newspapers.

            But consider public reaction when six people died in another incident.

            At first it seemed like no one was safe — six people dead in a single night. But now, more than a year later, the truth is more like this:

            4 of the dead were active in the trade
            1 of the dead was a junkie trying to buy something for his habit
            1 was an outsider, not involved in any way.

            As David would say, all six of these people were human beings, and in any case the penalty for drug trafficking in Canada is not death.

            I’m just pointing out that the public is no longer very alarmed as this incident. The Starbucks incident alarms some people more (because it was in a public place).

            But concerning those in the “gangs” who have killed more than once — there is evidence of nihilism — i.e. that they should enjoy their short lives while they can. And details like the criminal justice system are almost irrelevant.

            Lastly, those who might be inclined to “reform” have nowhere to go, and threats on their life if they do. I don’t extend this concept to all members of drug gangs, only those who have become multiple killers.

      • Please don’t think all those on the left overlook the travesty that so many people of African American and Hispanic descent are in prison. I don’t know why it doesn’t receive the press or media coverage that abortion receives. Perhaps abortion is just an easier concept to wrestle with and problem solve. The points you are raising are good ones; the problems you raise are complex, systemic and multigenerational in nature, much more than a newspaper column or a sound byte allows. Maybe start a radio show on Blogtalkradio.com. It is free if you can keep the show under thirty minutes. Keep talking about it though.

  • Damn, I just love to read your writing! Thanks for putting your “pen to paper”, it’s always pleasure. Regards, Leslie

  • 1) Baltimore Police Department homicide clearance stats are deceptive. The FBI allows homicide detectives to question the colleagues of homicide victims to find out whether a deceased victim may have killed somebody previously. If a colleague claims that the recent victim had killed a previous victim, then the police are allowed to close a previous case with that information, even though there is very little corroborative evidence other than what a colleague divulges. Using the rules of the Uniform Crime Report, this shifty case closure method is acceptable, however, morally ethically and maybe legally this type of case closing doesn’t hold water. The Baltimore Police Department uses this clearance method in a good number of homicide cases, in reality that haven’t closed any of them.

    2) +9% is a sky-rocketing homicide rate, especially since every other major American city has a decreasing homicide rate including Detroit.

    3) Zero tolerance was very much about locking as many citizens up as possible. IN 2007 Baltimore City had 110, 000 arrests, that would be one arrest for nearly every 6 people who call this city their home. Between 2003 and 2007 Baltimore Police routinely made arrests for loitering, littering, use of vulgar language, open containers, drunk and disorderly, riding a bicycle on a public sidewalk and riding a bicycle without a headlamp (For fun and laughs, go check out the arrest history of BPD Officer Richard Cimini out of Western District, he had a thing about bicycles without headlamps, 100s of them). Clarence Darrow isn’t just wrong on Zero Tolerance, he’s a blatant liar.

    4) Crime reporting does deter crime. Crime reporters report crime and how the criminal justice system is a self-generating industry that pleases those that earn their salaries, pensions and benefits from it. The voters realized they are getting snowed by the system and vote the top guy out. A new person gets elected to implement better systems that deter crime. Clarence Darrow should be concerned.

    • Cham Green: Your ad hominem attack on Mr. Darrow notwithstanding, the logic in your statements above seems biased and emotionally over-wrought. I’d like to reply by quoting Mr. Darrow’s post from earlier as both an eloquent and logical position that is supported by the current crime statistics in Baltimore:
      “…the deterrent effect of murder charges is not proven; to the contrary, the 50% reduction in charges appears to be having a moderating effect on murder statistics and overall crime statistics. Zero tolerance, by the way, doesn’t mean “arrest everybody and sort them out later.” The theory (that has worked famously in New York City) holds that if you give enough of the serious offenders a taste of a robust, strict, timely criminal justice system, they do not become repeat offenders. Crime rates drop. Having professionally trained, well-paid journalists covering this and other cultural phenomena does not somehow legitimize the issue. Crime reporting does not deter crime, not now, not 20 years ago, not ever. Enlightened public policy can.”

      • Zero tolerance was decidedly not giving enough “serious offenders” a taste of criminal justice. Not unless we count vagrants, graffitti artists and loiterers as serious offenders. In New York, these people were on the business end of zero tolerance. In Baltimore, under Mr. O’Malley, it was people sitting on their steps, loiterers, and people driving while black and staring at patrol officers for a second too long. Hence, the need to settle that NAACP action. And crime rates dropped only because the mayor wished to be governor and so the stats were boiled off aggressively. That Mr. Darrow redefined zero tolerance as something better was astonishing to me.

        That said, Mr. Bernstein and his office did a poor job of creating a deterrent against murder and after two years of increases, crime is now down over the last five months. It goes against my theories, and I certainly am under obligation to acknowledge such. Especially since I know of several cases in which what I argued for has happened — names of suspects uncharged in BPD case files have resurfaced in additional slayings. And yet, murder overall is down. I await a better explanation or theory than I have offered, or frankly, that Mr. Darrow has yet offered. No one practiced zero tolerance more than Mr. O’Malley. And yet the murder rates declined as Mr. Bealefeld lowered the arrest rate for petty offenses, non-violent crimes and street-level drugs. They began to rise again after the deterrent against homicide was halved by Mr. Bernstein in a year and remained 60-65 percent of itself the following year.

        Perhaps they are running out of bullets. Or targets. But I concede that at present I have no real explanation. My argument is not holding. I wish someone would make a better one.

        • “Zero tolerance” means just that. No robbing, spitting, paint spraying, window breaking, shooting, shooting up, loitering, cursing, public urinating–in short, breaking the law in any way, shape, or form.
          Check it. Zero tolerance works in NYC–and in other big American cities. It won’t work in Baltimore because of a sense that, somehow, we violate people’s civll rights when we suggest that they should conform to the standards of contemporary society. Unfortunately, we as a city have embraced “The Wire.” We are embraced by “The Wire.”

          • I would agree with you, but then we would both be wrong. Zero tolerance only seemed to work in New York City. It failed miserably in other places to the same degree it succeeded in New York. It was a policy disaster in Baltimore.

            What is the difference between New York and Baltimore?

            The difference is a two-decade run-up on Wall Street that brought an incredible influx in capital to the financial capital of the world, so that the entire real estate of Manhattan, most of Brooklyn, much of Queens and even a portion of the Bronx was rebuilt as a playground for the affluent and tracked-to-be-affluent. There is an economy of scale operant in New York — and also in Washington D.C. and West L.A., two other urban areas that are non-comparables because of their unique economic models — that allows callow hacks like Mr. Guliani and others to claim that a zero tolerance for crime did the trick. But in truth, the poor and the resulting crime that comes with poverty did not disappear from New York because it was run out of business by law enforcement. The poor — and crime — went away because the poor can no longer afford to be in New York and the only thing that can now mug you in Alphabet City or Morningside Heights is a one-star restaurant.

            When Mr. O’Malley attempted to import the logic to Baltimore, a typical rust-belt city with proportionate economic growth and opportunity, he found that he couldn’t arrest his way out of the problem. The jail and the prison system — not to mention the courts — were completely overloaded, and this after a decade of prison construction in Maryland. The police department, urged to make arrests regardless, arrested tens of thousands on bad charges, alienating communities and the juror pool. The quality of arrests fell and prosecutions declined as well, as police emphasized quality over quantity. Mr. O’Malley installed a hierarchy in the police department committed to juking stats so that rapes were unfounded and aggravated assaults were downgraded to common assaults, while robberies became larcenies. Then he had the chutzpah to “audit” the previous mayor’s stats and declare that thousands of previous reported crimes were similarly jukes — and he added those incidents to city statistics, so that with the previous administration’s crime stats fattened and his own juked, Mr. O’Malley could claim a 40-percent reduction in crime. The tell: The murder rate showed no such decline. You can’t hide bodies.

            And you want to lecture on what works in urban law enforcement? Sorry, I’ve been sentient in my city for the last twenty years. The only thing that reduces serious crime is targeting and incarcerating serious offenders — retroactive investigation and prosecution of the correct — and not all — violators of the law. Use the resources to lock up the major offenders and the felony rate dives — or if you have New York’s astonishing capital, price the poor into New Jersey and New Haven and Binghampton and elsewhere. All else is political flummery.

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