Laslo Boyd: The Hits Keep Coming

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On November 14, 2015 Baltimore reached the depressing milestone of 300 murders this calendar year, a figure that has not been equaled since 1999.  However you look at that number—whether as a rate that far exceeds that of much larger cities or solely in comparison to the years since 1999—it’s a grim reminder that this has truly been a horrible year for the City.

As if to add insult to injury, Bernie Sanders took a gratuitous swipe at Baltimore as a dangerous place during last week’s Democratic Presidential Debate.  The Vermont Senator, perhaps annoyed at Martin O’Malley’s jabs at his record on guns or wanting to shift attention away from his own unsure footing on foreign policy issues, put the spotlight squarely on Baltimore.

The attack came way out of left field and made little sense as part of the debate discussion, but was a reminder that Baltimore is an easy target for candidates wanting to score cheap political points.  And, until there are clear signs of the revival that so many in the City are working hard to achieve, you can be sure that Sanders’ shot across the bow will not be the last one.

On Monday, the Baltimore Sun previewed a report by the Washington based Police Executive Research Forum that sharply criticized the City Police Department for its handling of the Freddie Gray riots.  The findings reinforce previous impressions about problems during the response as well as providing additional disturbing details.

The image of chaos in the command center will surely be one of the lasting impressions from the report.  There were way too many people in the room.  There was a real lack of clarity as to who was responsible for what.  Critical communications lines broke down repeatedly. 

What may be even more troubling was the lack of preparation for a disturbance of the kind that occurred.   Compiling a list of “lessons learned” from the events of last April is certainly important, but begs the questions of why the Department was so ill prepared at the time.  The report is likely to generate a lot of attention that will look back in time as well as forward.

A different and also important perspective arose from a panel discussion last Sunday at which former Mayor Kurt Schmoke decried the “subculture of violence” in Baltimore.  Schmoke argued that part of the way forward requires communities to be less accepting of the violence all around them.  He also pointed to the City’s drug problem that he believes could be lessened if marijuana were decriminalized.  It’s a position he has long advocated in the face of significant political opposition.

Unfortunately, even if his prescription is correct, it does little to address the enormous challenges posed by concentrated poverty and the lack of sustainable employment for so many of the City’s residents.  And that doesn’t even get you to the issues of race that run across and through so many of the problems facing Baltimore.

Don’t expect the national narrative about the City to change anytime soon.  The trials of six police officers next year will rip the scab off and remind everyone of the riots and the spiraling murder rate.  Again, I don’t want to diminish the real and significant efforts that so many in Baltimore are making at the neighborhood level to make the City a better place and to project a positive image.   While lots of small steps can add up to real progress, Baltimore’s future viability requires visible and concrete outcomes that everyone can see.

We are already in the early stages of a campaign to select the next mayor of Baltimore.  At six candidates and counting, someone new will take on this daunting array of challenges.  Is anyone of them up to it?  At this stage, we really have no idea.  The field of six is split between candidates with prior government experience and those with none.  And, with the exception of Sheila Dixon, none has executive experience. 

Dixon is by far the best known and will be a tempting choice for many voters as a person who showed she could get things done.  However, besides the fact that the landscape has changed significantly since she held office, I find it hard to get past her outrageous ethical lapses. 

You have to hope that one of the others will demonstrate the vision, leadership qualities and specific policy ideas to tackle a job that looks overwhelming in many ways.  One glimmer of hope might be found in the example of outgoing Charleston, South Carolina Mayor Joe Riley.  He is leaving office after 40 years in which he showed real courage, dynamic leadership and an ability to connect with all of the diverse communities of that city. 

Is there in the current field, or someone still waiting to announce, a Joe Riley, a William Donald Schaefer, a Tom Menino of Boston?  The stakes are really high.  Will the media do its job and provide detailed and continuous coverage of the candidates and the race?  Will neighborhood and community groups mobilize and get citizens engaged?  Turnout has been dreadful in recent elections in Baltimore.  Will the potentially pivotal choice persuade voters to get involved?

It’s going to take all of those actions if the depressing news about Baltimore is to be replaced by a new narrative that looks to a brighter future.  

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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.