Center Maryland: Police are not alone in fight to stop gun violence in Baltimore

Editor’s note: The following commentary appeared on CenterMaryland.org on June 10, 2016.

By Donald C. Fry

On Memorial Day five people were shot in broad daylight during a cookout in front of a home near Greenmount Avenue in North Baltimore. Thankfully, the victims, aged 25-60, survived the attack.

When the suspect was arrested he had not one but two guns in his possession, said T.J. Smith, a spokesman for the Baltimore Police Department. In addition, the suspect was well known to police, having a lengthy criminal record. Prior to the Memorial Day melee, prosecutors and judges had plenty of opportunities to put the suspect behind bars for a long time, which is a source of frustration to law enforcement, Smith noted.

The suspect’s criminal history, according to a report in The Baltimore Sun, includes: attempted first-degree murder, armed robbery, and illegal possession of a gun. His record now includes five counts of attempted murder for the Memorial Day shootout, according to Smith.

Elected officials, business leaders and city residents need to demand greater transparency and accountability from the legal system, in particular, prosecutors and judges.

It’s been more than a year since last spring’s civil unrest that was followed by a dramatic jump in shootings and homicides. The bloodshed triggered national headlines and calls from the business community, residents and elected officials in the city to bring the violence to an end.

In response, the mayor, Baltimore City State’s Attorney, and the then police commissioner pledged to do their utmost to address the violence in the streets.

Recent statistics from police and data available on Open Baltimore, the city’s public data website point to a continued high level of violence that calls out for more accountability.

I am not suggesting a new approach toward law enforcement efforts at the street level as the focus on repeat violent offenders seems entirely on point. But a new approach is needed to the degree of public scrutiny that is given to the prosecution, conviction and, in particular, the sentencing of violent criminals.

In Baltimore City, between January 1 and June 4, 2016 there were 366 shootings – which includes homicides and non-fatal shootings – compared to 341 in the same period in 2015. That is an increase of 7 percent.

The city also experienced 253 non-fatal shootings, up 15 percent from 220 for the same period in 2015. Meanwhile, homicides during the period dropped 7 percent, from 121 to 113.

This level of violence is intolerable. Baltimore County, a neighboring jurisdiction with 200,000 more residents than Baltimore City, has experienced 11 homicides in the same timeframe.

It’s important to note that much of the violence that occurred during last year’s spring and summer months was attributed to gang members and others with criminal backgrounds settling old scores and protecting turf, Smith said. As scores were settled new ones were born. Unfortunately, gun violence feeds off itself.

This same dynamic continues today, Smith said, noting that a majority of the recent shootings and homicides in the city are tied to criminals with violent histories.

This year, some parts of the city have been hard hit. East Baltimore has seen a 34 percent in increase in total shootings between January 1 and June 4, 2016 when compared to the same period last year.

I would argue that 2015 is not the correct base year for a fair year-to-year comparison. Let’s throw out the crime statistics of 2015 as an anomaly because of the crime wave that was unleashed by the civil unrest.

Instead, let’s look at 2014. In calendar year 2014, there were 581 total shootings. This includes 211 homicides and 370 non-fatal shootings. With 366 total shootings through June 4, 2016, the math tells us that Baltimore is on pace to far exceed the 2014 total shootings benchmark.

Some people may look at the recent statistics and argue that the police aren’t doing enough to crack down on violent crime. Others may shrug off the grim numbers as a regrettable part of life in Baltimore.

But neither viewpoint is right.

First, Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis pushed for a new state law this past legislative session that would have provided mandatory sentencing for possession of an illegal firearm. A first offense would have resulted in a mandatory year in jail and a second offense would bring five years of incarceration. The legislation didn’t pass.

Commissioner Davis has adopted a solid policing strategy to address the shootings and other gun-related violence.

This includes police and federal law enforcement officials collaborating to target known violent repeat offenders and gun law violators so they can be arrested and charged, Smith said. Davis has also required far more cops to walk the streets to develop relationships with the community. This should lead to greater trust, and tips and arrests of violent gun-carrying criminals. These strategies will require persistence to pay off.

The other argument – that gun violence is just part of life in Baltimore – simply cannot be accepted.

However, with shootings and other gun violence still occurring with alarming frequency it is time to look to other parts of the law enforcement infrastructure to adopt new, tougher strategies.

It might be advisable for the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office to adopt stricter hard-nosed approach when it comes to the prosecution of illegal gun possession, shootings and other cases involving gun violence.

Imagine if Marilyn Mosby, the Baltimore City State’s Attorney, held a press conference and announced that city prosecutors would no longer dismiss charges related to possession of illegal guns or crimes involving the use of a handgun as a part of any plea-bargain negotiations. Every gun-related case would be prosecuted. Not a new law – just a new prosecutorial approach.

Such an approach would not eliminate plea-bargains – an essential part of the criminal justice system – but limit the ability of prosecutors to voluntarily dismiss any illegal gun charge.

That alone would send a powerful message to the gun-toting criminal elements in the city that business as usual has come to an end and their chances of incarceration had just gone up.

Such a policy would help remove those with a pattern of gun violence from the streets who are contributing to the continued bloodshed.

In a written statement Mosby’s spokesperson, Rochelle Ritchie, said that, when appropriate, prosecutors recommend mandatory penalties on gun offenses but also acknowledged that sometimes negotiating a plea agreement is a prosecutor’s “best option for obtaining justice and ensuring the defendant is no longer a threat to public safety.”

But as Ritchie correctly noted in her statement, it is a judge who ultimately imposes a sentence.

Ironically, of all the stages of a criminal charge – arrest, charging documents, trial, and the sentencing – it is the sentencing imposed by a judge that receives little attention and the least scrutiny. Outside of the prosecutors and criminal defense counsel who populate the city courthouse very few people know the sentencing attitudes or trends of the judges who hold the fate of the convicted violent offenders in their hands. If there is any part of the system that needs more attention and scrutiny it is the sentencing of convicted violent offenders in Baltimore City.

It is an area that is ripe for enhanced media attention and reporting.

Or perhaps the safety of the public would be well served through the creation of a not-for-profit organization whose sole mission is to monitor judicial rulings and sentencing decisions in gun-related cases. This group could report and publish on a periodic basis the sentencing outcome of case-specific rulings and decisions. Over time, the sentencing record and trends of individual judges would emerge for public review and analysis.

When paired with data tracking and the dissemination of city prosecutors’ track records in gun-related cases the public would have the complete story of the effectiveness of all the parties engaged in the fight to end the plague of gun violence in Baltimore.

Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, maintains that increased transparency and accountability might do for the gun violence issue what Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) has done for the issue of drunk-driving. Thanks to MADD’s early monitoring of judicial outcomes, and calls for transparency and accountability at all levels of the legal system, drunk-driving deaths are down, the attitude toward drunk-driving has dramatically changed, and no one today accepts such deaths as an unfortunate part of life, Webster noted.

“There’s really no reason the people of Baltimore need to accept that gun violence is just part of life,” Webster said. “It doesn’t have to be this way.”

He’s right. But it’s going to take more than just the brave men and women in the blue uniforms to make it so. We have to demand openness and accountability on the part of all involved.

Donald C. Fry is the President and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee. He is a regular contributor to Center Maryland.

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