Center Maryland: To address violence city leaders must be on same page

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Editor’s note: The following commentary appeared on CenterMaryland.org on June 5, 2015.

By Donald C. Fry

On Monday, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake confronted the public relations battle for the city’s image in the wake of an historic wave of homicides and shootings in May, following the civil unrest that erupted in late April.

The mayor said that despite the violence that followed the death in April of Freddie Gray while in police custody, she is optimistic about the city’s efforts to fight crime. There are success stories, the mayor noted, and they underscore her belief that Baltimore can curtail a recent spike in shootings and homicides and get back on track for a long-term reduction in overall violent crime.

Among the success stories she noted was the Safe Streets program, which enlists ex-felons as outreach workers in neighborhoods plagued by crime to mediate conflicts that may lead to gunfire and other violence.

While the mayor points to such programs that have successful records in an effort to change public perceptions that there is nothing but bad news coming out of Baltimore, it’s important also to note that Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts has had an ambitious strategic plan in place for long term improvements in public safety.

Among the strategic objectives outlined in the plan was developing a program similar in some ways to Safe Streets. The plan calls for a “robust” Ceasefire program, specifically aimed at targeting drug and violent gang-related crime.

Ceasefire differs from Safe Streets in that it works with police while Safe Streets does not.

The brainchild of David Kennedy, the director of the Center for Crime Prevention, Ceasefire involves law enforcement parties calling out and holding accountable known or suspected criminals right where they live.

Unfortunately since being re-launched and funded by Baltimore City in 2014, Ceasefire has stumbled and not been the “robust” player in the war against drugs and gangs that Batts had hoped two years ago when he unveiled his strategic plan.

But Baltimore’s Ceasefire program has recently hired a new director, and its successful track record in other cities, such as Boston and Cincinnati, makes it worth giving it another chance, especially if it can help law enforcement get a handle on reducing the influence of gangs. Batts says gangs are not only responsible for the spike in gun-related shootings and killings in May, but also served to stir up the riot mentality in some areas of Baltimore.

The mayor needs to lend strong support to the Baltimore Ceasefire program and help it address some of the operational issues that seem to be holding it back from making headway, all the while helping the police chief achieve one of his top strategic goals.

One approach to getting it off to a new start: take a page from how business often rolls out and tests new products and services by having the program focus on perhaps two troubled neighborhoods in the city as a pilot.

This might help city officials and the new director iron out resource, operational and other issues and prove Ceasefire can work in Baltimore to complement Batt’s efforts to get gang-related violence in check.

It’s important too, though, to keep in mind that gang-related violence has plagued Baltimore and other big cities for decades. Relying on any one solution is fairy-tale thinking.

It’s a hydra-head, if ever there was one, and will require short and long-term solutions and approaches to destroying it. For long-term, sustainable solutions we need to find a way to replace the drug economy that fuels gang power with a safer, stronger economic anchor for residents and communities riddled with violent crime.

Neither the police commissioner, the mayor, nor the city state’s attorney can go it alone on this front.

They need to work together. The business community and Baltimore residents not only support, but demand, this level of cooperation.

And, above all, these parties must showcase a united front to the city and the world.

The city economy and jobs creation are riding on that collaboration.

Indeed, a united public front would send a clear message to criminal elements intent on disruption that top leaders stand together in their commitment to making our downtown and neighborhood streets safer and letting the world know  that Baltimore makes public safety priority No. 1.

The ripple effect from such a powerful message may serve to draw people to the city’s restaurants, shops, sports venues, and tourist destinations, some of which have been struggling of late. Then we might be able to safely say Baltimore has turned an awful corner and is indeed on the path to a long-term rebound.

Donald C. Fry is president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee and chairman of the Hire One Youth initiative. He is a regular contributor to Center Maryland.  

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