Contrarian: Murder Doesn’t Matter

Let’s stop counting homicides, because when it comes to public safety, homicides don’t count

When a politician really gets his back against a wall, there’s no telling what might come out of his mouth. If he’s desperate enough, he just might resort to candor.

Down in Baltimore, Mayor Marty O’Malley has got his eye on the Maryland governor’s seat. Unfortunately for the mayor, he campaigned six years ago on a promise to cut the city’s murder rate almost in half. It didn’t happen.

At the time, homicide was a source of considerable shame for Baltimore, even if Homicide (the locally shot TV drama) was a source of pride. Baltimore’s 1999 body count was 305 — 13 more than Philadelphia’s, despite Philly having twice the population. So Baltimore’s new mayor made a big, high-profile push to get murders down to 175 per year. For a while it seemed he was on his way, but the killings rebounded over the past two years. Then, at the start of 2005, Baltimore had 32 murders in the month of January alone. No Baltimore mayor gets to be governor with a murder rate that reads like a vitamin bottle: one a day.

So what does a bright young politician do when a big goal misses by a mile? He moves the goalposts. Amidst the worst murder wave in city history, O’Malley proclaimed in January that Baltimore’s overall crime rate had hit “its lowest level since the 1960s.” He wasn’t wrong. Added all together, there were fewer murders, rapes, robberies and assaults in Baltimore last year than in 1970. O’Malley fretted that murder was really just a drug thing: “The drug trade is a vicious cycle of tit-for-tat killings. I wish I knew a quicker way to put an end to it.”

Tit-for-tat. Crooks killing crooks. It’s not polite in urban America to point out that a lot of murder victims were into bad stuff and just might have been asking for it. There are racial overtones to it, even if the facts are plain as day. But in Baltimore, which, according to the latest census information, is almost 70 percent minority, the white Mayor O’Malley is trying to rally public morale and save his pale political skin by putting some distance between the average citizen and the typical murder victim. His police commissioner let it be known that 90 percent of January’s slaying victims had criminal records. His public health commissioner was more blunt: “Baltimore is actually a very safe city if you are not involved in the drug trade.”

The same could be said for Philadelphia, not that you’ll catch Mayor Street or the police commissioner saying it. Homicide victims, with relatively rare exceptions, are not like you or me. Most are young men who either make a living from crime or hang with violent people. Paranoid parents teach their kids the perils of “stranger danger,” but murdered children, sadly, are almost always victimized by someone they know and trust.