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Baltimore and False Perceptions

When I was working in Washington, D.C. a few years ago, I came across many people touring America’s sights and sounds. These excited visitors would tell me about their adventures in D.C. along with various other places they had been and planned to visit next. I always noticed, however, one city missing, Baltimore, Maryland. Family after family was traveling from D.C., bypassing “charm city,” and going straight to Philadelphia. Baltimore, the city where the pivotal battle of the War of 1812 took place at Fort McHenry, where the star-spangled banner was composed, where Babe Ruth was born, where F. Scott Fitzgerald composed his novels, and the city with one of the most iconic baseball stadiums in America (disclaimer: “Yes, I am from Baltimore.”), was never on their list of destinations. When I would ask why, the confused respondent would usually reply: “are you serious, Baltimore is dangerous”. This would often leave me wondering how many places people do not travel to because perception, rather than empirical evidence, deems them “unsafe.”

Shows such as The Wire and Homicide: Life on the Streets, and actual events such as the Baltimore 2015 riots do not do much for Baltimore’s image. They suggest the city is a hotspot for violence and create a not-entirely-accurate impression. To be sure, crime rates in Baltimore are high and there are places to avoid. However, the least safe neighborhoods are not in tourist hotspots but rather in isolated pockets.

Like Baltimore, many international cities garner reputations as dangerous places and potential visitors are turned off by the high crime rates. The Economist magazine published data from the Igarape Institute detailing the 50 most dangerous cities in the world based on the homicide rate of 2016. Baltimore is ranked as third most dangerous city in the U.S. Seeing the data and being hesitant about these locations is understandable as one must look out for their own safety and the safety of loved ones. However, while providing the overall crime statistics, data sources often fail to publish the location within the city that the crimes occurred. This means that the most dangerous areas of a city often have a disproportionate effect on the perceptions of possible travelers. As an example, the following chart details the vast discrepancies in homicides and shootings between the various neighborhoods of Baltimore.


Figure 1. Homicides and Shootings by Baltimore Neighborhood (2016)

Planning the Trip

When planning your trip to Baltimore, or another “Baltimore” of the world, a good first step would be to check out various travel forums such as TripAdvisor and Yelp. These sites can provide a comprehensive approach of places to go and avoid, as well as top attractions. Secondly, subscribe to Google Alerts, a program that sends daily news updates of an area to one’s inbox. These daily news reports offer details as to events happening, local crime, construction, protests, and other issues occurring in that place. However, some international cities have restrictions on the news, so this information might not always be available.

Once you have a location to travel to, make sure to tell your bank/credit card provider the dates and locations traveling. This can be done online or over the phone and helps avoid disruption of services. Above all else, avoid posting on any social media account that you are away on a trip. This includes using the feature that states the current location. In 2011, Credit Sesame a company that provides credit reports, reported nearly 80 percent of burglars search social media sites to identify vacant homes.

While you might be ready for your journey, there is always the unknown which can cause a great deal of concern and take away from your peace of mind during travel. Before you leave, consider the following intelligence gathering techniques to minimize your chances of being victimized or inconvenienced.

  1. Collect real-time information as to developing events in the area you are traveling to by partnering with a security company that has eyes and ears on the ground and can help you navigate a place and mitigate danger.
  2. Determine specific neighborhoods to avoid through an in-depth travel risk assessment which can also uncover threat advisories where political and civil unrest are present.
  3. Visit the U.S. State Department for a list of travel insurance and medical evacuation companies and to review the current health conditions of your destination.
  4. Arrange for a GPS emergency tracking service, that alerts you when entering a dangerous area, and provides a panic button to notify authorities as to the place.
  5. Participate in travel safety training through your company or private security provider to improve your overall situational awareness. Many victims of crime (specifically in foreign countries) are the result of apparent “tourist” behaviors, resulting in targeting.
  6. Establish a safety plan when traveling, which should include periodic check ins with coworkers or family members.

There are many “Baltimores” around the world, places with a perception of being dangerous but have a lot to offer whether cultural, historic, scenic, or just because it seems interesting. It is important to remain alert to risk factors that you may find in new environments. If you lack familiarity with a destination or unknowingly use attention-seeking behaviors, you may increase the risk of assault. Taking the necessary security precautions and developing essential cultural awareness skills helps to minimize risks and maintain your safety. Above all, explore smart and don’t miss opportunities like watching an Orioles baseball game at Camden Yards, eating a crab cake, and visiting Fort McHenry to overlook the harbor.

Nicholas Karas is a Global Security Intelligence Analyst at AT-RISK International. Nick specializes in travel risk and counterterrorism and has assisted clients with risk mitigation, location analysis, and evacuation planning and procedures.

 

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