Baltimore’s alleged leaders search once again for a police commissioner to guide the city out of its homicidal wilderness. The weekend’s body count is three dead, eight injured. In the modern parlance, this is known as a slow weekend.
The next police commissioner will be the city’s third in three years. The next person killed in the city will be the 29th this month, the seventh in the past week, the 186th this year.
And homicides are only a piece of the problem.
Leadership comes from the top, but disgrace comes from many sources, including a newly-circulated viral video showing a city cop fracturing a man’s jaw and ribs. This follows convictions of eight members of the Gun Trace Task Force on racketeering charges, and Justice Department charges of routine discriminatory and unconstitutional policing.
And all of this is only part of the problem.
As the city reviews a reported 20 applicants from around the country to fill the vacated commissioner’s job here, this department has fallen into a funk. It’s been there since the death of Freddie Gray and the street outrage that followed.
There are police who still believe the department got a bad rap in that case, that police work isn’t patty-cake, and that their efforts are overly scrutinized and easily penalized.
And so, when you talk to veteran street cops, some of them admit holding back at moments when they previously might have waded in on suspicious street scenes. They’ll tell you they’ve down-shifted where once they might have gone into overdrive.
They’ll tell you that nobody wants to risk the kind of ordeal that those cops went through in the Freddie Gray case, where riots ensued, and careers were wrecked — and a cloud of anxiety descended on the city darker than any in half a century.
What’s more, there are downtown people — restaurant and bar owners, theater managers — who will tell you their businesses still haven’t recovered over the past three years.
The next commissioner will have to deal with all of the routine police business that comes with the job. But there’s an emotional element at play here, too. How do you convince several thousand officers that their work is vital, that they aren’t — as many believe — routinely guilty until proven innocent?
How do you convince great human swaths of a city — especially in those neighborhoods where people of color believe the police have unfairly targeted them — that such behavior will not be tolerated?
And how do you change a way of thinking that’s drifted across an entire metro area — a mindset that imagines the whole city’s a danger zone, not safe to enter after dark?
Are the crime numbers upsetting? Absolutely. Is there lack of leadership that covers not only the top echelons of the police department but stretches all the way to City Hall? Absolutely.
But there are, in reality, two cities we’re talking about, which mirrors a problem faced by many other American communities. There’s the city of Baltimore where life goes on in healthy, productive ways.
And there’s the city lost in wilderness, neighborhoods where the gunplay goes on, fueled largely by drug traffic, and by poverty that extends through generations.
And the next police commissioner has to deal with all of this — which means he (or she) had better be someone who’s got some staying power.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books. His most recent, “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age,” has just been re-issued in paperback by the Johns Hopkins University Press.