BALTIMORE — New crime statistics released by the FBI place Baltimore's homicide rate last year well above that of any other large U.S. city. The city is an anomaly in the national crime landscape when looking at American cities with populations over 500,000 people.
The 342 homicides yielded a punishing homicide rate of 56 per 100,000 people, according to the FBI's annual "Crime in the U.S." report released Monday. Earlier this year, Baltimore had announced 343 slayings for the year, but three deaths were reclassified, eventually bringing the total to 342 in the city of roughly 615,000 inhabitants.
Among major U.S. cities, Baltimore was followed in the FBI's annual tally by Detroit, which last year recorded a homicide rate of 40 per 100,000 people; Memphis, Tennessee, with a rate of 28 per 100,000; and Chicago, with a rate of 24 per 100,000. But some smaller cities reported a higher homicide rate than Baltimore's. St. Louis, with a population slightly over 300,000, had a rate of 66 murders per 100,000 people.
Overall, the FBI says the national violent crime rate decreased by .2 percent when compared with 2016 data, making Baltimore's tally stand out for large urban centers. In comparison, Houston, with over 2 million residents, had a rate of 12 homicides per 100,000 people. Boston, with less than 700,000 residents, had eight slayings per 100,000.
Violent crime rates in Baltimore have been notoriously high for many years. In recent decades, the city's gritty realities helped make it the setting for hard-boiled crime shows such as "The Wire," ″The Corner," and "Homicide." But there's been a worrying march of killings since the 2015 death of Freddie Gray, who suffered a fatal injury while in police custody, that eventually set a new per capita high in 2017.
Baltimore's leaders are hopeful this year could mark somewhat of a turnaround. So far in 2018, crime is declining, with homicides down some 16 percent compared to the same stretch of time last year. Killings are down by over 30 percent in some troubled neighborhoods where authorities are focusing attention, according to City Hall.
"One murder in Baltimore is one murder too many. But I am convinced that by addressing the root causes that give rise to hopelessness and eventually to criminal activity, we will make Baltimore safer for all residents," Mayor Catherine Pugh, who took office in December 2016, said in a Tuesday email.
But crime experts note that Baltimore's leaders have been failing to get their act together for a long time.
David Kennedy, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, said that what's distinctive about Baltimore is that it's been "unable to muster any kind of strategic and lasting response" through the course of its violence epidemic. He contrasted it with Chicago, one of the deadliest cities in the country but a place where he believes leaders have a clear focus and a plan.
The main reasons for Baltimore's violent crime problems are the subject of endless interpretation.
Some attribute the increase to the fallout of the opioid epidemic and Baltimore's longstanding status as a heroin market, or systemic failures like segregated neighborhoods, unequal justice and a scarcity of decent opportunities for many citizens. Others have pointed the finger at police, accusing them of taking a hands-off approach to fighting crime since six officers were charged in connection with the 2015 death of Gray, a black man whose mysterious fatal spinal cord injury in police custody triggered the city's worst riots in decades.
In addition, there's been serious instability at the top of the police force and Baltimore has been struggling to implement a consent decree mandating reforms after federal investigators detailed longstanding patterns of unconstitutional policing and excessive force in the eighth largest municipal police department in the United States.
"The underlying conditions that produce violence always matter. But on the other side, what matters is whether a city is able to frame up and implement a response to the violence. And one of the fundamental facts about Baltimore is that it's really never been able to do that," Kennedy said in a Tuesday phone interview. "There's been persistent political and law enforcement dysfunction in Baltimore going back pretty much as far as anybody can look."