How to Put Baltimore on the Road to Redemption

By Dennis Free

So now the war of words begins about Baltimore.

Baltimore has been a failing city for decades. Back in the 1970s I lived in neighboring Montgomery County. There were parts of Baltimore that taxi cabs would not go. Imagine that. There were parts of Baltimore you could not pay a person to drive through. How would you like to live there?

There is no doubt that corruption is rampant. It begins with leadership, illustrating that a fish rots from the head down. In the past decade two mayors, Sheila Dixon and Catherine Pugh, have been forced to resign over corruption.

Last year Police Commissioner Daryl DeSousa was sentenced to 10 months in federal prison for failing to file tax returns. In 2018 the State Senator representing Baltimore, Nathaniel Oaks, resigned on the same day he pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges.

Institutions, not surprisingly, followed. The latest police scandal concerned officers in a gun task force who were committing robberies and other crimes. Unfortunately this is just the latest police scandal. There are others.

In 2015 the city jail had a massive scandal involving a criminal enterprise run from within the jail.  Corrections officers were smuggling everything from cell phones to drugs into the facility for the inmates. Female correction officers were actually being impregnated by inmates.

In 2017 the school system was involved in a scandal that involved changing grades. One teacher stated that she was forced to give a passing grade to a student on her roster that she had not seen even once during the school year.

Baltimore Sun reporter David Zurawik lamented that his beloved town is coming apart at the seems amid mounting public scandals. It is hard to dispute his statement.

Coupled with corruption is an institutional failure almost unimaginable. According to local reports, one-third of Baltimore high schools have no students proficient in math. Seventy percent of the students who graduate and go on to college require remedial classes.

Schools have difficulty even heating their buildings in the winter. Millions of dollars in boiler repairs, doors, and window upgrades were paid for but no one checked to see if the work was actually done. Not surprisingly, it was not.

The police department, constantly racked by scandals and without the trust of the citizens it serves, fights a losing battle against crime. In 2018 Baltimore was named America’s most dangerous city by USA Today. The city had the distinction of the worst homicide rate in the country.

Baltimore has been shedding population as a result of these chronic problems. Today the population is about what it was 100 years ago. There are over 17,000 abandoned homes in the city. Baltimore is evolving into two cities: the elite who live in areas such as the Inner Harbor, and the poor who cannot afford to leave decrepit rat-infested neighborhoods.

Pretending that nothing is seriously wrong is dangerous, not just to the well being of the city as an institution, but the citizens who live there. There is also an inevitable cynicism in the city that the culture of corruption is so baked in that Baltimore will never be rid of it. This is equally dangerous as no attempt to improve guarantees the status quo. The good people of Baltimore deserve better.

Baltimore Sun reporter David Zurawik believes that to turn Baltimore around the leaders must fix corruption, crime, schools, and blight. Improvements in Baltimore will naturally follow. Zurawik’s observations reflect what is commonly believed by social scientists who study urban areas.

Businesses will return to cities that are safe, have an educated workforce, and a good quality of life. With businesses come jobs, and the recent past has shown that when jobs come to cities, people will take them. Like everywhere, people living in inner cities want to earn a decent living and provide for their families.

To fix corruption Baltimore needs a hero, someone who has not come up through Baltimore politics and learned what Marta Mossburg of National Review called, “The Baltimore Way.” Matt Thorn of the Baltimore Sun agrees. He laments that the local political system corrupts and thwarts the efforts of those who enter Baltimore politics with the best of intentions. This person needs to have the courage to end the failed policies of the past.

Paul Jay, a longtime Baltimore journalist, suggests changing the city charter to give the people the power to impeach the mayor. He also believes that there is too much power concentrated in the office of the mayor. Some of this power should be transferred to city council, permitting more transparency in local government.

The crime problem is going to be a serious challenge since citizens have lost confidence in their police department. As painful as it is when bad cops are arrested, that is a good thing. A good step would be to establish a community policing model. Focus on parts of the neighborhoods that are stable, like churches, and work out from there. Have the focus of the police force to solve problems that lead to crime instead of just responding to crimes.

For a dysfunctional school system, I believe that there is some hope. I firmly believe that the role of government is to assure that our children are educated but not always to think the government must provide the education. If the public school system chronically fails, allow private, parochial, home schooling, or charter schools to replace them.

For example, there are 35 charter schools in Baltimore and they educate 12,000 of the 95,000 students in public schools. The charter schools are so popular with parents that the number is insufficient to meet demand. Although I did not find information regarding if charter schools are better, the number of parents wanting their children in charter schools seems indicative of their success.

Finally, to root out corruption, Baltimore needs a robust Inspector General’s Office or an Independent Auditor. Demonstrate at a government and institutional level intolerance of corruption, then the members of the institutions will follow.

The sooner Baltimore starts the sooner things will improve.

Dennis Free serves as chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia’s Second Congressional District. 

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