What’s Behind the Recent Plague of Shootings in Baltimore?

Originally published in VICE on May 20th, 2015.
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While the national film crews have packed up and left Baltimore, losing interest in the place now that there are no more burning pharmacies and vandalized cop cars, Charm City residents are left to reckon with one of the most violent months they’ve seen in years. As the Baltimore Sun reports, homicides are up nearly 40 percent compared with this time last year, and nonfatal shootings are up 60 percent. From mid April to mid May, 31 people were killed, the Washington Post reports, with 39 more wounded by gunfire. The Sun adds that, as of late Tuesday, there had been 170 nonfatal shootings so far this year.

To put all this in perspective, the last time Baltimore saw 30 homicides in one month was in June 2007.

The spike in violence has received less attention outside of Baltimore than Freddie Gray’s death, but within the city, leaders, police, and community members are struggling to figure out what exactly is going on.

One theory floating around is that the weeks of unrest after Gray’s demise in police custody have daunted cops, leaving them unable or unwilling to control violent crime. The police union and some legal experts are upset at the criminal charges that the city’s top prosecutor, Marilyn Mosby, has leveled at six members of the Baltimore Police Department (BPD)—among them murder and manslaughter. This, coupled with a formal Justice Department investigation launched in cooperation with local officials to examine police practices, has left the BPD in a state of agitation.

Lieutenant Kenneth Butler, a longtime BPD veteran and president of the Vanguard Justice Society, a group for black officers, told the Washington Post that rank-and-file cops feel alienated, vilified, and afraid to do their job. “In 29 years, I’ve gone through some bad times, but I’ve never seen it this bad,” Butler added in comments to the Baltimore Sun, referring, in part, to officers who feel as though Mosby “will hang them out to dry.”

While beat cop reticence could be a factor, Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, points out that homicides and shootings in West Baltimore were on the rise before the Freddie Gray unrest, though the pace has since accelerated. Webster thinks that among other things, the protests just strained the cops’ capacity.

“The police have been less active in proactive policing, less likely to engage individuals on the street,” Webster says, adding that resources were diverted to addressing the riots and in turn disrupted patrol and detective work. Leads from residents that detectives use to make arrests—though already quite difficult to come by—were further reduced during this time, he said, citing conversations with officers. Moreover, Operation Ceasefire, an anti-violence initiative begun by the city early last year, has been running without a program manager for the past several weeks. (The mayor’s office has indicated a new program manager will be hired soon.)

Webster believes another factor at play here may be that the Freddie Gray protests emboldened criminals. “We just had a huge display of lawlessness and disrespect for law and law enforcement,” he explains. “That mindset can spread easily and affect behavior.”

Dayvon Love, the co-founder of Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle (LBS), a grassroots organization that advocates for the interests of black people in Baltimore, doesn’t buy the connection between the protests and violence—one he calls an “easy deflection” of systemic issues.

“This [surge in violent crime] is a natural outgrowth of the conditions in which shooting and violence occurs,” Love says. Scapegoating the protests and the Mosby charges, Dove thinks, is particularly convenient for those unenthused with critiques of law enforcement and institutional racism. And it’s true that high rates of poverty, unemployment, and drug addiction all consistently correlate with high homicide rates. Love also argued that Baltimore’s had all kinds of violence for a long time—including sexual abuse and discriminatory housing policies—though it’s only when guns are fired that leaders start to panic.

Perhaps a simpler explanation for the increase in shootings is just that it’s getting hotter outside. Baltimore Bloc, another local grassroots organization, say that they don’t think the protests had anything to do with the recent violence, and that in their experience, violence always surges in the city as summer approaches. Lester Spence, a Johns Hopkins political scientist, agrees that homicides usually rise and fall significantly with the seasons, with the fewest occurring during the winter. “It’s no coincidence that homicides are spiking right now when the weather is getting warmer,” Spence says.

The violence that occurs when competing gangs fight over turf to operate their drug operations also generally escalates in the warmer weather. “People are suggesting that the spike we’ve witnessed over the past few weeks represents something new, but summer is just starting,” Spence adds. “It might be a blip or it might continue. We don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Baltimore PD Spokeswoman Sarah Connolly told VICE in an email, “We are investigating each incident as a singular incident while examining any trends and patterns to ensure that we are deploying our officers and resources effectively while being proactive and engaging the community. While we have developed investigative leads in a number of cases, we continue to ask the community’s assistance in calling with any information they may have.”

Meanwhile, some Baltimore community groups are taking the opportunity to organize anti-violence demonstrations. Coinciding with the 90th birthday of Malcolm X, the NAACP held a “Stop the Violence ‘By Any Means Necessary'” rally Tuesday night at their office in the Sandtown neighborhood. Another group committed to decreasing gun violence in Baltimore, the 300 Men March, is holding an “Occupy Our Corners” anti-violence rally on Thursday evening to honor the recent homicide victims.

“We the PEOPLE, are not blaming anyone but ourselves for failing to create a safe environment within our city,” their rally flyer reads. “Recognizing this, WE STAND, as a community of all people, regardless of RACE, RELIGION, SEX, CULTURE OR BACKGROUND.” According to the Sun, Munir Bahar, one of the group’s founders, is calling for 30 men in ten Baltimore neighborhoods to become block leaders in the fight against crime.

Love doesn’t expect the organizing work that LBS, Baltimore Bloc, and other grassroots groups are doing will change much in light of the increased violence. “Because doing that,” Love explains, “would take away from the larger objective, which is ultimately about systemic change.”

The threat to Internet privacy

Originally published in the Baltimore Sun on January 31, 2013.

This week, the United States, Canada, and the 27 countries in the European Union “celebrated” Internet Privacy Day. However, it seems there is little to really celebrate; the past few years have given rise to the largest increase in electronic wiretapping our nation has seen. To be sure, access to information is important for fighting crime and terrorism. However, because the major laws that govern Internet privacy were written in 1986, they fail to protect the modern-day security needs of American citizens. And despite Barack Obama’s campaign promises in 2008 to repeal policies that violate civil liberties, his administration is now not only supporting them but also quickly expanding their presence within the digital world.

The 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act (EPCA) was enacted before social networking sites were invented, and before the everyday use of email, Internet and cellphones. Thus, there are many unsettling constitutional quandaries that Congress simply could not have anticipated 27 years ago. For example, the bill says that the Fourth Amendment, which guards against unreasonable searches and seizures, applies to digital files — but only if they are not given to a third party. Yet third-party entities such as Google, Facebook and Dropbox hold some of our most private communications on their servers. The structure of the law as it is written gives more privacy protection to a yellow memo pad on your nightstand than emails on your Yahoo account.

In September, 2012 the ACLU released a report that stated the number of authorizations the Justice Department received to use “pen register” and “trap and trace” techniques on individuals’ email and network data increased 361 percent between 2009 and 2011. A “pen register” intercepts outgoing data from a phone or email account, while “trap and trace” intercepts incoming data. The ACLU also reports that the Justice Department used these measures to spy on phones 23,535 times in 2009 and 37,616 times in 2011, an increase of 60 percent.

Additionally, Google just released a report stating its company saw requests for information from the federal government increase by 70 percent over the past three years. In more than two-thirds of those cases, Google complied and released some amount of personal data. Sixty-eight percent of the requests Google received were through subpoenas, which typically do not require a judge’s approval. According to Google’s public statements, “Government agencies make requests … seeking information about Google users’ accounts or products. In [our] report, we are generally revealing statistics about demands in criminal investigations.”

To be sure, not all information requests are controversial, since these numbers reflect not only requests for “content” emails but also for basic subscriber information, which is not protected under the Fourth Amendment to begin with. Yet, while big companies like Google, Yahoo and Microsoft demand warrants for content requests, it is likely that smaller companies with less money for legal battles do not.

Google is not the only company facing a surge of government information requests. Verizon told Congress in 2007 that it received at least 90,000 such requests each year. And Facebook told Newsweek in 2009 that orders were arriving at the company at a rate of 10 to 20 a day. The number of requests and subpoenas has surely increased since then, but ultimately there exists no clear public mechanism to monitor exactly what information the government requests and receives from Internet companies. This is problematic.

The Obama administration has been too quiet on matters regarding digital security, and in situations where officials have spoken out, they’ve advocated for a greater ability to collect information, rather than less. In December, the administration reauthorized an extension of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which allows the government to monitor overseas phone calls and emails without obtaining a court order for each intercept. While the law excludes Americans, there remains a lot of troubling obscurity as to the nature and execution of these powers. Additionally, the FBI has said that revising surveillance laws to make it easier to wiretap people who communicate online rather than by telephone is a top and urgent priority.

The FBI contends it is not seeking new, invasive powers but rather looking to keep its existing powers relevant in the modern age. However, the Obama administration, Congress and even the FBI have to work vigorously to protect the civil liberties and privacy of American citizens. As Internet Freedom Day (Jan. 18) and now Internet Privacy Day (Jan. 28) come and go, it is imperative that we actively seek to establish a clear and constitutional legal framework for the digital era.