Laslo Boyd: May was a bad month

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You’ve read the stories.  More murders took place in Baltimore this past month than in any month since 1970. That’s the headline that comes close on the heels of the murder of Freddie Gray and the subsequent riots.  It’s hard to imagine a worse branding campaign for Maryland’s largest city than the cumulative image of this last month.

Why has the murder rate spiked again now? Have the police, in response to the indictments of six officers for the death of Freddie Gray and widespread criticism of patterns of interaction with the minority community, pulled back from active enforcement?  Is the violence a byproduct of the lawless atmosphere that prevailed during the riots? Does Baltimore have some particular combination of poverty, drugs, and bad actors that make it especially susceptible to sprees of violence? It there some other unrelated explanation?

Let’s start with a few facts we know, along with the acknowledgement that there is a lot we don’t know.  As a society, we need to get past the false dichotomy that you either support the police or you support strong protection of individual rights.   We saw in Ferguson, New York City and Baltimore groups lining up on one side or the other with little regard for what had actually happened. 

We must be able to acknowledge that police officers have a hard and dangerous job. We also need to express our appreciation for their efforts.  Those facts don’t lessen in the slightest the obligation of police to treat people with fairness and dignity. 

How do you find the right balance?  Public policy in many fields reflects the most recent cycle of events.  Much has been made of the fact that Martin O’Malley, when he was Mayor of Baltimore, instituted a version of “zero tolerance” policing in response to the high murder rate in the City at that time.  He built part of his political reputation on having reduced that murder rate significantly. 

Many critics, at the time as well as later, argued that police tactics went too far and produced unjustified arrests and ill treatment of people, particularly in the minority community.   

Today, Mayor Rawlings-Blake is facing both sides of this bad equation.  The murder rate has jumped and her police department faces investigation by the Department of Justice for its treatment of minorities.   Thus far, she has given no indication that she has figured out how to move beyond the current double-edged problem.

Being mayor of any city but especially of diverse metropolitan centers isn’t easy.  You have to make choices and they don’t always work out the way you hope they will.   But you have to try.  That’s one of the lessons all mayors should have learned from the remarkable tenure of William Donald Schaefer as Baltimore’s mayor for 15 years.

On that score, I give O’Malley credit for having tackled a problem that most citizens at the time saw as a high priority.  The results created new problems that he and his successors—remember that he has not been mayor since the end of 2006—should have done a better job of addressing.

The current mayor is something of an enigma. Every time there is a crime uptick, she announces that “we have to do better” or “we’re working on a new plan”.  As one observer told me, Rawlings-Blake doesn’t seem to have the leadership gene.  Frankly, the month of May seems to have left her more adrift than usual.

Neither the death of Freddie Gray nor the riots nor the May murder statistics have stirred her to public leadership.  It would not entirely surprise me if she decided not to run for re-election next year.  She just does not seem sufficiently engaged in the job.

Unfortunately, so far, there appears to be a general leadership vacuum among elected officials.  Governor Larry Hogan, who deservedly won applause for his initial response to the Baltimore riots, has been missing in action since then.   His economic development trip to Asia is both a legitimate gubernatorial activity and a metaphor for his disengagement from problems on the local stage. 

Hogan and Rawlings-Blake are, in a perverse way, Maryland’s political odd couple.  Both drift in and out of active engagement.  Both seem to enjoy the details of the job more than the big picture or vision.   Both are more thin-skinned than is healthy for a person in public office.  And neither seems to be very good at collaborating with others.

The riots in Baltimore have given them an incredible opportunity to get beyond their narrow agendas and do something big and important.  To succeed, they would have to do it together, share credit, and share the work.   Will they be remembered for the bold initiative they took together or for the opportunity that they both missed?

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Laslo Boyd's professional experience includes serving as education advisor to the Governor of Maryland, Acting Secretary of Higher Education, senior administrator in several higher education institutions and university professor.  His work in political campaigns has involved strategic communications, public opinion polling, and development of position papers.  Dr. Boyd has consulted for a wide range of clients in higher education, government, and business.  He has provided political commentary and analysis in both print and electronic media.