BALTIMORE – Just before a wave of violence turned Baltimore into the nation’s deadliest big city, a curious thing happened to its police force: officers suddenly seemed to stop noticing crime.
Police officers reported seeing fewer drug dealers on street corners. They encountered fewer people who had open arrest warrants.
Police questioned fewer people on the street. They stopped fewer cars.
In the space of just a few days in spring 2015 – as Baltimore faced a wave of rioting after Freddie Gray, a black man, died from injuries he suffered in the back of a police van – officers in nearly every part of the city appeared to turn a blind eye to everyday violations. They still answered calls for help. But the number of potential violations they reported seeing themselves dropped by nearly half. It has largely stayed that way ever since.
“What officers are doing is they’re just driving looking forward. They’ve got horse blinders on,” says Kevin Forrester, a retired Baltimore detective.
The surge of shootings and killings that followed has left Baltimore easily the deadliest large city in the United States. Its murder rate reached an all-time high last year; 342 people were killed. The number of shootings in some neighborhoods has more than tripled. One man was shot to death steps from a police station. Another was killed driving in a funeral procession.
Here is where the crime stats will mislead you. If the police are gone or just look the other way, then the crime stats will show a decline in crime rates. After all, if an assault happens and the police are never involved, it will never show up on a report. That doesn’t mean that the crime didn’t happen. It just means that it wasn’t reported.
That’s where tracking homicides becomes one of the only barometers of the overall violent crime rate. When someone is killed by another person as a result of an assault, accidentally, or otherwise, it is counted. The other stat that one would have to look to is hospitalizations for gunshot or other wounds caused by violence. The hooker who is bludgeoned by her pimp might not show up on a crime report, but she will still show up with a hospital admission.
In the absence of police or customary police enforcement, we have to look to other data to understand the level of crime happening in our communities. The crime stats given by law enforcement are useless.