Until 2011, Baltimore had become safer thanks to smart policing that targeted criminal hot spots while making fewer arrests, albeit with a rise in police-involved shootings.

That changed after a new commissioner arrived touting the virtues of police restraint and improved community relations. In the protests and violence that followed Gray’s death, the police were urged to hold back until they came under attack: 130 officers were injured and the National Guard was called in.

Toxic relations between the police and the city’s political leadership made matters worse. A federal consent decree showed little understanding of how effective policing works, further hamstringing law enforcement. Expanded definitions of “use of force” made cops especially reluctant to intervene in situations where there was a chance of a physical altercation. The police force shrank. A new mayor touted the benefits of after-school programs and social mediators to treat the root causes of crime. But, as MacGillis acidly notes, the mayor’s plan “risked overlooking the most immediate dilemma: People inclined toward lawbreaking increasingly thought they could do so with impunity.”

The result is a comprehensive urban tragedy that can’t be blamed on long lockdowns, hot summer weather, the coronavirus or the state of the economy.