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How dangerous is Baltimore?

PH2009111205109.jpgDoes the media give an accurate picture of crime statistics?

One answer is very, very dangerous:

Baltimore is, statistically, the second-deadliest city in the USA; only in Detroit are you more likely to be murdered. Last year there were 234 homicides in the city, which has a population of 650,000. It was a 20-year-low, but still meant that one in every 2,700 people was murdered. In Britain, that figure is about one in 85,000.

The other answer is that it depends on who you are:

One columnist at the Baltimore Sun recently described Baltimore as a city of two worlds. It is in the "other world", the one populated by drug dealers and gangsters, that most murders occur. Those not involved in the drug trade are apparently as unlikely to be murdered in Baltimore as they are in any other civilised city in the world.

Figures seem to suggest that is true. Of the 234 murders last year, 194 of the victims (82 per cent) had criminal records and 163 (70 per cent) had a history of being arrested for drug offences.

You see this a lot: Some schools look very bad until you control for income, and then they look pretty much fine for the type of kids who end up in private schools that generally serve kids of higher incomes. That's the problem with statistics: They're not always measuring what people think they're measuring.

Photo credit: By Jason Redmond/Associated Press

By Ezra Klein  |  November 12, 2009; 4:46 PM ET
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I lived in Baltimore for 6 years, and its truly the 2nd most awful city in the United States.

Yes, it has the Inner Harbor. Yes it has Fells Point. Yes, it has Roland Park and Charles Village.

But in between those few spare areas of luxury, literally 85% of the city is a ghetto. Go five blocks north, east, or west of the Inner Harbor and you are in a war zone. 90% of the houses are boarded up, rampant drug trade and prostitution everywhere.

All cities have bad parts. Perhaps 25% of New York City could be classified as truly "bad" areas. But in Baltimore, its literally 85% of the city. No city in America besides Detroit has a larger ghetto vs "nice" ratio.

Posted by: platon201 | November 12, 2009 4:57 PM | Report abuse

I would like to point that the article you cite also points that even those not in the drug trade in Baltimore are facing murder rates of 1 in 16,000. Those are obviously better odds than 1 in 2,700, but it still represents a major increase in you odds of dying a violent death compared to living out in the country.

Further, having lived in Baltimore for five years (2002-2007), the tendency for the cities privileged population to look on the murder rate as a spectacle rather than as a problem to be solved was one of the more disturbing trends I encountered. People, myself included, looked at the police blotter like it was the Oriole's box score, as a source of entertainment. While it may be true that one can live in Baltimore for years while largely screening out the experience of actual violence and taking it all in as a spectacle instead, I can't consider that a position you should encourage.

Posted by: ianhhenderson | November 12, 2009 5:11 PM | Report abuse

Another correlation we see from these stats is the link between drug trade and violent crime.

Just like in the Prohibition era, when the murder rate skyrocketed while alcohol trade was the domain of organized crime. Once Prohibition was repealed, it wasn't long before the murder rate went down.

Quite a few experts conclude from this history that if we end the War on Drugs, we can reduce the murder rate.

Posted by: billkarwin | November 12, 2009 5:22 PM | Report abuse

This post illustrates the pitfalls of statistics well:

Presumably in other cities, the majority of murder victims also have criminal or drug records. So saying that Baltimore isn't as bad as the overall murder rate sounds is irrelevant unless you also compare its non-criminal/drug murder rate to those other cities. I bet that it remains pretty high. Unless you are just talking about absolute murder rates, you need to compare apples to apples; no fair saying Baltimore's apples are 80% oranges, without saying the same for other cities.

Posted by: Ulium | November 12, 2009 5:48 PM | Report abuse

"Figures seem to suggest that is true. Of the 234 murders last year, 194 of the victims (82 per cent) had criminal records and 163 (70 per cent) had a history of being arrested for drug offences."

So it's not as dangerous to members of your socioeconomic class is what you're saying?

Posted by: adamiani | November 12, 2009 6:06 PM | Report abuse

This is true here in Nashville, too -- perhaps more so. About two years ago, the Nashville Tennesseean in the first week of January published a multi-page report with thumbnail descriptions of every single one of the 80-some murders (the city had around 600,000 residents at the time) from the previous year.

The drug trade accounted for about 50-some of them, and love triangles another 20-some. The dozen or so left after that were mostly a mix of robberies or burglaries gone bad or murdered prostitutes. The truly random murders were in the low single digits.

Posted by: Rick00 | November 12, 2009 6:29 PM | Report abuse

Rick00, if a robbery or buglary is random, and a murder results from it, isn't the murder, too, also random?

Baltimore has plenty of great neighborhoods. In addition to the ones mentioned by platon201, there's also Hampden and Federal Hill. The problem is that there will always be a consistent brain drain out of the city. Once you have good opportunities ahead of you, you leave. Even those who do the commute to DC from Baltimore tend to leave once they get the financial wherewithal to move closer to the city so they don't have to endure that horrendous commute.

Posted by: constans | November 12, 2009 6:40 PM | Report abuse

I think my major issue with the article quoted is that it compares the murder rate in one large city of half a million people with the murder rate of a nation of 90 million! Wouldn't it have made more sense to compare the murder rate in, say, Manchester or Birmingham -- or even London?

Posted by: precisioncontrol | November 12, 2009 10:06 PM | Report abuse

Portland, Oregon, with a population close in size to Baltimore's, had 21 homicides from Oct. 2008 to Oct. 2009. While the city is something of a magnet for well-behaved people, with pockets of poverty showing up in the suburbs, Portland must have plenty of drug dealing.

Perhaps Charles Moose, formerly of the Portland and Montgomery County police departments, could offer a perspective on Portland's relative safety.

Posted by: DaveoftheCoonties | November 12, 2009 10:12 PM | Report abuse

Last year there were 234 homicides in the city, which has a population of 650,000. It was a 20-year-low, but still meant that one in every 2,700 people was murdered. In Britain, that figure is about one in 85,000.

wow there's that mortality statistic again. No wonder Britians live longer than us in the US. And I thought it was BECAUSE of the NHS and the fact that we don't have universal healthcare. Silly me.

Posted by: visionbrkr | November 13, 2009 12:01 AM | Report abuse

welcome to urban life ezra

i live in a city too

i read of killings in the newspaper almost every day

i have been in this "safety" discussion many times over many years

i see it as a NIMBY argument

"not in my backyard"

"there are "dangerous" places and i want to nothing to do with them"

a serious problem

many people live in neighborhoods where their lives are at risk

they live in places where they and their children are not safe

they do not have the economic power to live somewhere else

more people could live in safer neighborhoods, if resources were applied to make more neighborhoods safer


the hodge-podge of political jurisdictions that shape policy facilitate allocating resources which make safe neighborhoods safer and allow other neighborhoods to become more dangerous

the hodge-podge of political jurisdictions encourages economic development policies which continuously creates wastelands of abandoned factories, buildings, and housing

talk about saving the environment

economic activity moves away and the people who are too poor to move with it are stuck in an unhealthy, dangerous, and costly environment

an environment in which the major economic activity more often than not is dealing drugs

in recent times jobs moved from city-to-suburb, and from north-to-south and west, then jobs moved from older suburb to newer sububurbs (exurbs), now jobs seem to be moving from the US to other countries

NYT featured a NIMBY story today

pfizer encouraged new london CT to facilitate economic development that pfizer wanted

the proposed development would be where there was established neighborhood

there was opposition to this idea

the city government had to go to the supreme court to endorse government right to use eminent domain to remove the community for "economic development" purposes (to gratify pfizer's wish)

the supreme court said go ahead and
the project proceeded

until this week

pfizer has decided to abandon any economic activity in new london

pfizer decided it needed to cut costs to facilitate its wyeth acquistion

there will no longer be any pfizer jobs in new london

pfizer is satisfied

new london is left "holding the bag"

pfizer of course, signed no contract, they just announced they are abandoning the project to save post-acquisition cots

Posted by: jamesoneill | November 13, 2009 1:03 PM | Report abuse

jameoneill, the poetry slam is down the hall, second door on the right.

Posted by: constans | November 13, 2009 4:05 PM | Report abuse

East St Louis actually has a much higher murder rate of 83.8 per 100,000, which means, if it were the same size as Baltimore, it would have 1,815 murders each year. It would also have 5,444 rapes every year if it were the size of Baltimore.

St Louis is much much safer, but East St Louis is freakin scary as all hell.

Posted by: ltieman | November 14, 2009 8:33 AM | Report abuse

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