Baltimore’s Gang Problem

Is the city overrun with Bloods and Crips—or is the police department just looking for a scapegoat?

Demonstrators yell at Baltimore police during clashes in Baltimore, Maryland April 27, 2015.
Demonstrators yell at Baltimore police during clashes in the city on April 27, 2015.

Photo by Shannon Stapleton/Reuters/Fotoware/ColorFactory

It was a nightmare scenario: The gangs of Baltimore were setting aside their differences and joining forces to “take out” city cops as retribution for the death of Freddie Gray. Word of the alleged plot came on Monday in the form of an official announcement from the Baltimore Police Department, which warned of a “credible threat” involving local chapters of the Bloods, the Crips, and the Black Guerrilla Family. The gangs had entered into an unholy “partnership,” the press release said, casting a terrifying pall over the afternoon as people all over the country watched CNN and waited for hell to break loose.

The so-called credible threat struck many observers as anything but: With no information about where the tip had come from or why officials had decided to make it public, it was hard to stave off the suspicion that Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts was trying to distract from the real issues at hand (the death of a black man in police custody), or worse, pre-emptively justify whatever heavy-handed tactics his officers might embrace over the course of the night.

In fact, the announcement was a reflection of something deeper about the police commissioner and the approach he has taken to fighting crime in Baltimore since he moved there from Oakland, California, in the fall of 2012. Batts’ Baltimore tenure has been marked by a relentless focus on gangs and an operating belief that most of the city’s violence can be traced back to them. Batts has been talking about gangs from his first days on the job—and, in fact, it seems that his fixation predates his arrival on the East Coast: According to the Baltimore Sun, one of the precipitating factors in his departure from Oakland seemed to be that his plan to expand a controversial program restricting the movement of suspected gang members to certain geographic areas met with resistance.

In January 2013, just a few months after Batts started his current job, the Baltimore Police Department was criticized for allowing the number of homicides that had taken place in the city during the previous year rise to 217—up 10 percent from the year before. Batts’ explanation for the uptick in violence: gang warfare, characterized by execution-style killings. “Those gangs were shooting each other in the head. They were assassinating each other,” he told the Baltimore Sun.

The following May, Batts called the Black Guerrilla Family—a prison gang that had established a presence in the streets—“public enemy No. 1” and promised Baltimore residents that his officers would “screw the cap down so tight” on them that they would “pop.” And in September 2013, despite the fact that internal police data showed that just 65 of the 167 homicides that had occurred that year were connected to gangs or drugs, Batts declared that “close to 90 percent” of the violence in Baltimore was “gang member-on-gang member, drug dealer-on-drug dealer.” Two months later, after telling the local newspaper Afro that gangs were emigrating to Baltimore from the West Coast and “targeting” the city’s neighborhoods, his department helped carry out the indictment of 48 suspected members of the Black Guerrilla Family, in what a Baltimore Sun columnist called “one of Baltimore law enforcement’s biggest gang busts ever.”

No one would dispute that gangs are a problem in Baltimore or that they account for some significant portion of the violence that takes place there. But does the police commissioner’s very public emphasis on them reflect an effective crime-fighting strategy, or is it merely a shrewd PR tactic designed to pin widespread violence stemming from complicated societal ills on an enemy that seems identifiable and manageable?

The word gang suggests a network of criminals who are working together in service of some shared goal—typically money and power. Gangs, in the popular imagination, have leaders, lieutenants, and foot soldiers and are engaged in criminal enterprises like racketeering, extortion, and drug sales. In theory, at least, that means they can be taken out by law enforcement with the help of sound intelligence and vigilant policing.

But most experts on urban violence I’ve talked to believe this is an outdated idea of what gangs really are. In cities all over America—New York, Boston, Chicago—gangs now take the form of small, loosely affiliated groups of friends who live in desperately poor neighborhoods, have access to guns, and kill each other over petty squabbles and in acts of revenge, not just illicit business interests. According to Daniel Webster, an expert on gun violence at Johns Hopkins University who has worked closely with police and community leaders, that’s true in Baltimore too.

“Baltimore gangs have tended to be much smaller, much more fluid,” Webster said. “I think there’s a whole lot of not-so-professional violence that occurs. You might have somebody who somewhere along the line had some gang connection, but that doesn’t mean they’re shooting each other because of that connection. People shoot each other because of girlfriends and all kinds of stupid stuff that has nothing to do with the gang component.”

This reality has implications for how law enforcement should deal with violence in the city, Webster says, and suggests that rounding members up en masse isn’t the way to go.

“There’s sort of a history here in Baltimore of thinking about crime and crime-fighting in terms of groups: If we could only lock up those groups, we’ll have a safer city,” Webster said. “And it just hasn’t worked all that well. And I think in part the reason is that the violence problem is not as nice and tidy as that.” He added in an email: “BPD and local prosecutors have focused inordinate resource[s] on drug-selling rather than more narrowly and strategically come down on the gun violence. But dealing with the nonbusiness side of violence requires broader approaches than law enforcement. You need street outreach, conflict mediation, and community partners to promote alternatives to violence with law enforcement as effective deterrent.”

To be fair, Batts’ strategy in Baltimore has gone beyond locking up members of the Black Guerrilla Family. Last year, he introduced a program called Operation Ceasefire, which is based on the idea that a tiny percentage of a city’s population tends to be responsible for the vast majority of its violence and that if those individuals can be reached, through intimate conversations with police, prosecutors, and community leaders, many of them can be convinced to stop. Ceasefire, the brainchild of John Jay College of Criminal Justice professor David Kennedy, has worked well in other cities, including Boston and Chicago, and early results from the Baltimore program have been promising.

“Here’s the way this works, basically—and this is true in Baltimore and in every city with a serious homicide and gun violence problem: It is a very small population of usually fairly fluid groups, comprised of extremely high-rate offenders, who generate most of the violence,” Kennedy told me. “And the people in those groups are, over the course of their … lives, both very high-rate offenders and very high-rate victims. They need to be persuaded not to be violent, and they need to be persuaded that the police and the city and the authorities and their community can protect them.”

Nevertheless, there are repeat violent offenders, and then there are “gang members,” and the distinction between them is not trivial. When city leaders like Batts talk about gangs and emphasize their central role in perpetrating violence in the city, they can end up obscuring the complex factors that lead individuals to crime and imposing a false coherence on what is essentially chaos. (I left a message for the Baltimore Police Department and will update this post if I hear back.)

This is not to let the city’s violent gangs, whatever their nature, off the hook—or worse, to lionize them. While the police department has still not shown any proof that the gangs of Baltimore tried to coordinate an attack on officers this week, it’s not sensible to make too much of the fact that a handful of unnamed individuals calling themselves Bloods and Crips told a TV reporter that they had actually come together to protect the city from violence. Lost amid the viral frenzy over that seemingly encouraging segment was the fact that, in a separate conversation, a member of the Crips told a New York Times reporter that he and other gang members had sought to protect only black-owned businesses from looters, while directing them instead toward Chinese- and Arab-owned stores.

The point, regardless of what gang members are saying, is that most “gangs” should not be thought of as monolithic entities or, in most cases, as elaborate criminal conspiracies. What does Commissioner Batts really mean when he says that most homicides in Baltimore are committed by gang members against other gang members? Who are these gang members, and how sophisticated are the organizations they’re supposedly part of? There does seem to be evidence that the Black Guerrilla Family maintains a substantial and systematic drug-dealing operation. But if what you’re trying to do is reduce violence, it seems more useful to talk about the individuals who are driven to join such organizations than to focus entirely on eradicating the organizations themselves. Many of the young people in Baltimore who call themselves gang members are just kids who have sought purpose in joining something that seems bigger than themselves. 

“The fact that gangs have the draw and the appeal that they do is because a lot of young people … feel like they don’t have an identity, and gangs provide that,” Leon Taylor, a retired Baltimore cop who left the force four years ago, told me. “These kids don’t have hope, they don’t have viable alternatives—this is what they turn to. It provides them with stability, with status, a sense of structure. That’s what they’re looking for. And that’s not a police problem. But it’s a problem that the police have to deal with.”

Taylor emphasized that he doesn’t have access to the same information that Commissioner Batts does and that the situation on Baltimore’s streets may well have changed since his days on the job. But, he said, even if gangs are as big a contributor to violence as the department seems to believe, “There’s more afoot here than gangs.”

“Say we get rid of gangs today—now what?” Taylor said. “Is that going to solve the crime problem? The gangs are symptomatic of much deeper issues. So unless you can replace them with something—what’re you going to replace them with? And who’s willing to invest in that?”