Riot police form a line to push back protesters and media, Baltimore, April 28, 2015.
Riot police form a line to push back protesters and media, Baltimore, April 28, 2015. | Wikimedia

Baltimore's Murder Rate Nearly Twice Chicago's

While the Windy City gets the headlines, Baltimore gets more body bags per resident.

As Baltimore's police department today announced a "consent decree" with the U.S. Justice Department to implement reforms that could weaken law enforcement, the Maryland city is now far deadlier than it was during filming of the gritty television series "The Wire" (2002-08).

Baltimore tallied 318 murders in 2016. That seems far below Chicago's official police tally of 762 murders that same year. (The actual Chicago homicide count, according to the Cook County medical examiner's office, was 812, as AMI Newswire reported Tuesday.)

By adjusting for population size, it becomes clear that far more Baltimoreans are shot, stabbed or otherwise killed than residents of Chicago. Baltimore's murder rate is 51 per 100,000 residents, Chicago's is 28 per 100,000 residents. By comparison, the murder rate in New York City was 3.9 murders for every 100,000 residents in 2016.

The spike in Baltimore began in the wake of the riots associated with the controversial 2015 death of Freddie Gray, who died handcuffed in the back of police vehicle. Police officers involved were later acquitted and are suing the city of Baltimore on a number of grounds.

Nonetheless, the new consent decree instructs police to try "de-escalation tactics" before using violence to subdue suspects.

At 344 murdered, Baltimore's 2015 count was even worse than 2016.

Experts do not have a clear answer why murder is rising precipitously in some cities. Some, including FBI Director James Comey, have surmised that police have pulled back their efforts following public outcry in response to the shootings of unarmed black men by officers. This has been dubbed the "Ferguson effect," in recognition of the protests and other criticism of the police sparked by the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014.

In Baltimore, the causes may be more localized. Killings began to climb within days of Gray's death in police custody while police forces have retreated. Many police officers have retired early or voluntarily left the force. The ratio of police on duty to residents is now at historical low levels in Baltimore. 

The Gray incident also highlights that while all murders are homicides, not all homicides are murders. Some killings are accidental or otherwise fail to meet the legal definition of murder including self-defense killings by police or civilians.

More than 86% of Baltimore's murder victims, or 275 individuals, were shooting deaths while in Chicago, 89% of homicide victims were felled by gunfire. Few of those gun battles involved police.

As in Chicago, African Americans made up the lion's share of killings. Nearly 92% of Baltimore's murder victims were African-American while Chicago's Cook County found that 710 of the county-wide killings were of African-Americans. Figures for the city of Chicago alone are likely much higher due to the demographics of the county and city.

Men were also most likely to be the victims of murder, with more than nine out of ten victims being male in both cities.

Notably, the murder rate in large cities has been rising across the country since 2014 according to the FBI and local police department data. Cities over 250,000 saw the number of murders rise by 14.5% in 2015 over 2014. Nationally, murder rose by 11.8% across jurisdictions of all sizes.

Preliminary 2016 FBI data confirms this trend as murder rose again by 5.2% in the first half last year over the first half of 2015.

But not all cities are experiencing the murder spike. New York City saw its murder rate fall from its 2015 level of 352 murders to 330 murders in 2016 in a city with more than 8.5 million people.