A mural of Freddie Gray near the location where he was arrested in Baltimore. (Win Mcnamee/Getty Images)
As with many residents of Baltimore, I closed 2017 with a sense of loss, regret and deep frustration. At Huber Community Life Center in northeast Baltimore, the family, peers, teachers and many admirers of Jonathan “Johnny” Tobash consoled one another in aching sorrow, confronting yet another senseless tragedy of a young, promising life snatched by random gun violence on a Baltimore street.
Jonathan was doing everything right. Just 19 years old, this impressive young man embodied the best qualities we want for our young people. A 2016 graduate of Baltimore Polytechnic Institute and a sophomore engineering student at Morgan State University, Jonathan was bright, ambitious, hardworking and determined to make something special of his life. He was thoughtful, humorous and respected by his peers and older adults alike. But his ambitions were snuffed out because he simply happened to wander upon a robbery outside a neighborhood food market on a cold night just before Christmas.
Jonathan was Baltimore’s 335th murder of 2017. Before the year’s end, there would be eight more. For too long, Baltimore’s narrative has been defined by murder and the conditions of hopelessness and desperation that fuel violence on our city’s streets. Wherever they travel, Baltimoreans are confronted with questions about crime and violence first. The tremendous civic, cultural, medical and educational assets that also define this city of charm are mere after thoughts.
This is why we forged ahead with the Justice Department’s consent decree early last year in the turbulent wake of Freddie Gray’s death. We are reforming policies and practices, while hiring and training more police officers who will work and live in our city.
Roughly 2,000 active Baltimore City police officers work on behalf of some 620,000 citizens; that’s an insufficient number of officers. The decision to freeze the hiring of new officers in recent years to accommodate budget pressures was precisely the wrong decision. We are now pursuing our goal of 3,000 active officers and have a record number of officers in training, and we are reducing attrition rates. Moreover, our innovative partnership with Bloomberg Philanthropies has resulted in securing an additional $5 million to improve policing and update technology, essential to the effectiveness and integrity of our police.
Through the Violence Reduction Plan, we’re defining a new way of collaborating across agencies. Each morning, agency representatives empowered to make decisions gather with district commanders to develop round-the-clock action lists to mitigate neighborhood problems. A $6 million commitment from our business community to help implement the nationally recognized Roca program in Baltimore will strengthen our efforts to counteract factors that threaten our youth and fuel violence.
We have also launched the Call to Action initiative, a dynamic, biweekly forum that enables citizens to be part of the solution to reduce violence and strengthen their communities. Because the prospects for our success are tied directly to the prospects of our youth, I made Baltimore City Community College tuition-free for graduating Baltimore City public high school students starting in 2018. We must ensure that our younger generation has a path to success, starting with access to higher education and the essential skills they need to succeed. Improving the health of Baltimore by expanding resources for people held hostage to addiction is among our most urgent tasks. Partnering with CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, we’ll be deploying an additional $1.5 million to ongoing efforts to treat those afflicted with opioid dependency.
The efficacy of any transformative city agenda necessitates extending real opportunity to those who are out of work, including ex-offenders. Representatives from our Office of Employment Development are out in our neighborhoods, knocking on doors and deploying mobile units to provide vital resources to those who need and desire employment.
The long, sordid chronicle of Baltimore’s housing crisis — a result of systemic local, state and federal policies that have effectively trapped generations of black citizens in substandard, isolated parcels of our city — has directly contributed to the desperate conditions we are striving to change. It’s for this reason that we’ve prioritized access to affordable housing and better schools and why I’ve increased funding for affordable housing by nearly 70 percent in our recent bond package. We’ve partnered with Helping Up Mission to provide 300 new units of quality housing for our homeless citizens who deserve a place to live.
If our grief over the loss of Jonathan — and so many others — has a purpose, surely it must be to bring about change that’s real and lasting. As such, we must target the root conditions that give rise to a culture of violence: neglect of our youths, drug dependence and a lack of jobs and economic opportunity. Hopelessness.
I am convinced that our challenges are not greater than our determination to change the trajectory of lives at risk, and to write this new narrative. It will be one that resonates as true because it reflects the reality of people who came together to solve their difficult problems, address systemic failings, comfort and lift one another, and forge ahead to create an era for Baltimore that’s better simply because possibility and promise are extended to all.
Editor's note: Catherine E. Pugh, the writer is the mayor of Baltimore, Maryland.