With the number of lethal and nonlethal shootings, robberies and assaults on the rise in Baltimore, police and government officials are clamoring for ways to make sense of what is happening. But even with public finger-pointing and posturing, there still isn’t a consensus about who should be blamed for the current dilemma.
Some say judges are to blame. Some say it is the fault of Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby. Others say Mayor Catherine Pugh is the problem. But there is at least one narrative that the Baltimore Police Department, city leaders and some community members seem to agree on: Crime isn’t just an adult problem, but a juvenile one as well.
To hear them tell it, youths in Baltimore have gone stark raving mad — robbing, assaulting, breaking property and swearing in front of children. They are miscreants who are “out of control” and committing a “rash of violent juvenile attacks” and “wreaking havoc.” They are kids who must be stopped.
But according to local defense attorneys and activists, officials’ new approach to tackling these so-called violent culprits points to a much more unnerving problem: a revival of disastrous narratives about kids that prevailed during the 1990s.
During a public safety event early this month, Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis announced a new decoy unit of undercover, “young-looking officers” that will patrol the streets for misbehaving youths. “I’m convinced that these juvenile offenders travel in packs. I’m convinced that they look for people who appear vulnerable to them,” he said.
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At a press conference days later, Davis noted that many violent crimes are committed by repeat “offenders” who have been arrested and released.
“Poverty, unemployment, family dysfunctions, drug addictions—all those things are very, very real in our city. But they do not excuse violent behavior by anyone, particularly juveniles,” he said. “They either need to be interrupted with a jail cell or some other type of intervention. But the way we’re doing it now is not working.”
Davis has also decried the number of kids who are sent to the juvenile court system even though they qualify for adult charges. He says that this trend indicates a lack of “consequences” for young people who commit serious crimes.
In addition to the new decoy unit, more officers will be stationed in South Baltimore and the Inner Harbor, two of five neighborhoods with the largest proportion of white residents. “For the rest of the year, you will see an enhanced police presence, and that is not going to go away,” the commissioner told an applauding crowd.
Not everyone is clapping, though.
“It, for me, sounds like a return of the myth of the superpredator,” juvenile public defender Jennifer Egan told The Root. “Baltimore police, media and public officials have started using the same fearmongering terms — roving gangs, violent youth, brazen attacks — the exact-same language that [John] Dilulio, criminologists and police used in the 1990s to vilify black youth in urban centers.”
In the ’90s, criminologists like John Dilulio and James Fox predicted a crime wave by out-of-control, violent “superpredator” children. Fox warned, “Unless we act today, we’re going to have a bloodbath when these kids grow up.”
Though Fox and Dilulio now admit that their predictions were wrong—the blood bath never happened and juvenile crime actually dropped—the highly racialized rhetoric produced widespread panic and resulted in the incarceration of thousands of youths.
The Baltimore Police Department disagrees with the idea that the superpredator myth has been revived. Chief of Media Relations T.J. Smith told The Root that the department is talking about teenagers—not 7-, 8- or 9-year-olds.
“Whatever the 1990s myth was, that’s exactly what it sounds like: a myth. It’s not a myth that you have juveniles who just randomly decide to assault a family at the Inner Harbor,” he said.
Smith agrees that there are systemic issues contributing to the violence, but also argues that police have a responsibility to protect residents and visitors.
“The people that you’re talking to clearly have an agenda, but I don’t think victims of violent crime would have the same opinion,” he said.
But even with a noticeable uptick in juvenile arrests for assault, carjacking and robbery, BPD hasn’t said definitively whether or not juveniles are actually committing more crimes. What is clear, though, is that juvenile crime in Baltimore has been trending downward for years.
Between 2014 and 2016, juvenile complaints fell 38 percent. Juvenile homicide rates have also plummeted since the 1990s. Despite a recent spike in murders and shootings in Baltimore, kids haven’t been committing them, Egan said.
According to the most recent data available, there was also a drop in recidivism between 2010 and 2015, even though more kids were tried in juvenile instead of adult court. Yet the rhetoric surrounding the new police unit and recent assaults does not reflect this reality, Egan says. Instead, it re-ups racialized narratives that painted kids as monsters and led to their mass incarceration.
“Kids are not mini adults,” Egan said. “All kids are kids. Another way to describe ‘brazen daylight attacks’ is ‘immature, impulsive and unsophisticated.’”
And the Supreme Court agrees with her. More than once, it has ruled that kids are reckless, irrational, susceptible to peer pressure, impulsive and highly influenced by their environment— precisely because their brains aren’t fully developed. As such, the criminal-justice system cannot treat them the same as adults.
The latest narratives also ignore the fact that Baltimore youths are underfunded, under-resourced and heavily policed already, says 16-year-old activist Chelsea Gilmer of the Baltimore Algebra Project, an organization that fights for education and human rights of local youths.
For instance, bus stops have been turned into “gated communities” because of barricades set up to control young people’s movement, Gilmer and Egan say.
Gilmore says that patrol officers park their cars near the bus stops and brandish pepper spray and guns as a form of intimidation.
“It’s really crazy to me that there’s systems put in place to target us and put us in institutions to keep us from society. But there’s not a lot of systems put in place to help us,” she said.
Criminal-defense lawyer Jason Downs agrees with Egan and Gilmore’s concerns. He says he believes that any violence committed by young people in Baltimore is not a symptom of depraved, monstrous youths, but a result of systemic neglect. Downs points to the new $35 million juvenile detention facility that received three times more funding than a local job program for the city’s young people.
“The idea of targeting youthful offenders by creating a unit full of ‘young looking officers’ is, at best, the equivalent of putting a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound to stop the bleeding,” he said. “Until we seriously invest in deterring children from the criminal-justice system, our city will not be truly safe.”
Reviving the superpredator myth—while ignoring educational neglect, unsafe housing, lead paint and other forms of societal abuse—does the exact opposite, according to Egan.
“Right now I’m very worried that people are trying to score political points on the backs of children who they have personally failed,” Egan said.
This article was published in partnership with In Justice Today.
Carimah Townes is a criminal-justice reporter for the Fair Punishment Project. She has also covered race politics, education and pop culture.