The Daily Record: Ending the scourge of violent crime in Baltimore

Editor’s note: The following commentary appeared on on August 24, 2017.

Due to record homicides and violent crime in many parts of the city, Baltimore has been called a “city in crisis.” But recent proposals have emerged aimed at addressing the violence with concrete ideas and action.

One of the proposals, “Live To Be More,” was announced by Councilman Brandon Scott on behalf of the City Council’s Public Safety Committee. The other holistic plan was issued by Mayor Catherine Pugh in a document titled “Violence Reduction Update.”

Both plans include initiatives to address crime in the short term (curbing the shootings and killings) and the long term (overcoming joblessness, poverty and disenfranchisement in distressed neighborhoods).

To be truly effective in addressing violent crime in Baltimore will require both crime control (i.e. effective crime fighting strategies and tactics) and crime prevention (programs to provide enhanced education, after-school programs, and employment opportunities, to name a few).

Baltimore needs to address violent crime with an eye on immediate steps, as well as investing in programs that may yield lasting results.

It would be foolhardy for city leaders to primarily focus their attention on the pursuit of crime-stopping strategies while ignoring or deferring long-term initiatives for a later day. Immediate steps to stem the scourge of violence and long term solutions to address the underlying challenges that may lead to crime must run concurrently.

Doing that won’t be easy – it will take focus and persistence.

Innovative ideas

As for the specifics set forth in the two plans, the Greater Baltimore Committee’s Task Force on Public Safety, which is developing a set of recommendations to assist the city in stemming the record-breaking homicides this year (227 as of Aug.23) and violent crime plaguing the city, reviewed both plans and found similarities and differences in their approach.

Some of the ideas advanced in the plans are not new, but rather call for expansion, improvement or a “reboot” of existing programs.

There are, though, some innovative ideas worth watching, including an intriguing plan by the mayor to pilot a youth intervention program developed by Roca Inc. a Massachusetts nonprofit. It has had a successful track record steering young men and women away from crime in the Bay State. It is a program that should be given serious attention.

It’s worth sizing up some of the ideas included in the two proposals to get a sense of how the city may end up addressing the spiraling crime and violence on either a short-term or long-term basis.
Both plans seek to address homicides and violence, much of it tied to guns, by focusing on a number of fronts identified by the GBC’s Task Force on Public Safety: better policing; collection of crime data, intelligence and coordination; supporting Baltimore’s youths; community engagement and development; and health initiatives.

Pugh’s Violence Reduction Update pays particular attention to improving how police operate and deal with criminal activity in the city, improved community relations, better leveraging of crime data, getting repeat violent offenders and illegal guns off the streets, and increasing jobs and youth opportunities, especially in economically distressed communities.

Some specifics in Pugh’s plan include:

  • Hiring civilians for administrative work now handled by sworn officers to provide a stronger police presence on patrol. (Due to attrition and other factors, the city has a shortage of sworn police officers – 500 fewer than in 2012.)
  • Using a $2 million state grant to provide mobile data terminals for patrol cars so police can file reports electronically and conduct background and warrant checks of suspects in real time.
  • Establishing mandatory training for the use of body-worn cameras.
  • Expanding and modernizing police training to ensure officers properly perform “constitutional stops and investigative encounters.”
  • Pursuing probation violations committed by high-priority repeat offenders.
  • Expanding the Mayor’s Office of Re-entry to work with those returning to Baltimore communities from incarceration. (Research has established that a job is a strong deterrent to returning to criminal activities.)
  • Hiring a director of the Mayor’s Office on Criminal Justice. Pugh announced the hiring of Drew Vetter to this role. Vetter previously served as chief of staff to police Commissioner Kevin Davis.
  • Launching the Roca program backed by a $17 million grant from the state and local nonprofits. The mayor proposes a pilot Roca program aimed at young men living in high-crime areas to ensure they stay clear of criminal activity and are put on a path of potential success.

Scott’s plan includes a number of programs not referenced in the mayor’s plan. Some of these include:

  • Setting up community policing advisory groups in each council district.
  • Expanding organized basketball opportunities for teens in violent neighborhoods.
  • Improving mental health services in city public schools for youths to violence and trauma.
  • Increasing the number of YO! Centers which provide academic classes and job training for youths ages 17 to 24 who are not working or in school.

Highest yield

Each proposal contains many programs and initiatives that have been previously discussed by the business community, nonprofits, church and community leaders, city residents, Baltimore police and elected city officials.

Pugh’s plan specifically emphasizes the importance of a directed focus on repeat violent offenders, and Scott’s plan notes the need to reduce “group violence,” which the plan defines as small groups of individuals known as “Violent Repeat Offenders within small geographic neighborhood boundaries.”

In comprehensive programs of this size, a risk exists that by taking on too many recommendations one may not achieve the desired results. It would be a valuable exercise for those involved in implementing this crime reduction plan to identify the recommendations that could yield the greatest positive results and focus on those efforts.

By doing so, the city has the best chance to bring about a significant reduction in the current level of crime and violence and help Baltimore communities become transformed into thriving areas with jobs, opportunities and optimism that is secure and lasting.

Donald C. Fry is President and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee. He is a frequent contributor to The Daily Record. 

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