Officials: Staged panhandler killing played on Baltimore’s worst stereotypes
BALTIMORE — What police now say was a false story of a good Samaritan being killed after giving money to a panhandler in East Baltimore played on the worst stereotypes of the city and created widespread — and unwarranted — hysteria about the threats posed by the homeless, officials said Sunday.
The killing of Jacquelyn Smith in December was not, in fact, committed by a robber pretending to thank her for handing a few dollars out the car window to a panhandling woman with a baby in her arms, as her husband and stepdaughter tearfully claimed, police said in a news conference.
Instead, Keith Smith, 52, and Valeria Smith, 28, were arrested Sunday by Texas State Police in Harlingen, near the Mexican border, and charged with first-degree murder while trying to flee the country, acting Baltimore police Commissioner Michael Harrison said.
The initial story, coming at the end of Baltimore’s fourth straight year of more than 300 homicides, made national headlines and prompted feelings of outrage and hopelessness about the city. Baltimore’s long-standing reputation for violence played into the case, said the acting police commissioner, mayor and state’s attorney.
“People take advantage of Baltimore,” Harrison said. “What we want to make sure is that the truth comes out and justice is done.”
‘Took advantage’: Mayor Catherine Pugh said the suspects used the issues of homelessness, crime and poverty that have long plagued the city to stage her death as a good Samaritan killing.
“These individuals took advantage of a situation, a city that is already dealing with its own problems,” Pugh said. “We’re looking forward to this cruel act being brought to justice.”
State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, who accompanied Harrison and Pugh at the news conference, noted that the city’s negative image played into the ruse.
“Oftentimes we have these negative depictions about our city, and it’s rather unfortunate when people take advantage of these negative perceptions,” Mosby said. “This is an example where collaborative efforts of the Baltimore Police Department and my office were able to get to the truth of the matter.”
Vulnerable population: The lie affected more than just the city’s public relations efforts. Panhandlers in Baltimore told The Sun they heard the click of door locks and saw a large drop in donations in the days after the killing.
Blaming a murder on an already vulnerable and often stereotyped group of people is “reprehensible,” said Kevin Lindamood, president and CEO of Health Care for the Homeless.
“This claim was made and then suddenly there was outright fear of vulnerable people on the street,” Lindamood said. “You turned on any news station and you heard people talking about this news story in a very sensational way.”
Because of their poverty, homeless people are often assumed to be violent, when they are far more likely to be victims of violence than the perpetrators, he said.
“It’s never been uncommon for the larger public to stereotype populations living in poverty,” Lindamood said. “We find that particularly when it comes to the association between violence and homelessness, it’s just absolutely overblown.”
Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, called the case “unfortunate on so many levels.”
It reminded Fowler of the case of Jussie Smollett, the “Empire” actor who Chicago police allege staged and paid for a racist attack on himself to promote his career.
“When it comes to Baltimore, don’t believe everything you hear,” Fowler said. “I’ve lived here 28 years, raised kids here — it’s wonderful city. Sometimes people take advantage of our reputation to cover up crimes. It’s heinous.”
Destigmatizing homelessness and poverty, as well as avoiding the inclination to jump to assumptions, are key to ensuring scenarios like these don’t become sensationalized, Lindamood said.
“Things like this are rooted in fear — fear of people who are different than we are,” Lindamood said. “We need to really work to break down these stereotypes that aren’t often based in reality, and this is a very powerful example of that phenomenon.”