The Daily Record: Solving the public safety crisis in Baltimore

Editor’s note: The following commentary appeared on on June 15, 2017.

As I read a headline in one of the local newspapers this past weekend, I had a sense of déjà vu. It read: “Amid record violence, worried Baltimoreans see a city in crisis.” This view is shared widely in the article — by residents, community leaders, police and others — as they reflect on the terrible violence, largely gun-related, that continues to plague Baltimore.

Ironically, in an op-ed that I co-authored on behalf of the Greater Baltimore Committee’s Board of Directors those very same words were used to describe spiraling homicides, shootings and other acts of violence in the city. Sadly, the commentary was published in The Baltimore Sun almost two years ago in July, 2015.

“Baltimore is at a pivotal point at which much is at stake – primarily more people’s lives. Indeed we are facing a major public safety crisis that requires an “all hands on deck” approach,” I wrote on behalf of the entire GBC Board of Directors.

As it stands today, the shootings and killings haven’t abated since those words were published and the city may be on track to break records.

The 2015 commentary outlined a set of expectations for key Baltimore leaders to help address the violence, especially the spike in homicides and gun violence. These included a call for the mayor, police commissioner and city state’s attorney to prioritize addressing homicides and gun violence and work together as collaborative partners to develop a strategy to tackle this vexing issue that was causing so much personal tragedy.

Since then, some things have changed.

There has been a change in leadership in two key positions – a new police commissioner in Kevin Davis and a new mayor in Catherine Pugh. These leaders are outraged at the level of violence and have secured additional support from federal authorities.

The role of guns

A big challenge in the fight is guns. The criminals, especially the violent ones that Davis and his department are targeting, have them. We have to face a basic fact — guns are available to almost anyone via illegal channels on the street. All too often they are being used to settle a grudge or in gang turf battles.

Some of those toting illegal guns do get arrested. But unfortunately, all too often, those arrested with guns end up back on the street. This is only adding to the burden and frustration for law enforcement. While some of those released don’t commit new crimes, others do. Consider some telling statistics:

Between January 1, 2016 and June 7, 2017, according to Baltimore Police Department records, 565 defendants were found guilty of gun violations.

Of those defendants found guilty, at the time of sentencing, 60 percent received over half of their sentence suspended.

When there is a guilty verdict in a serious criminal case, it is fair to assume that police and the prosecutors did everything right. The police and prosecutors have reason to feel that they have done their job. But in those cases where a significant part of a sentence is suspended the outcome is less than satisfactory or acceptable.

According to police records, it is shocking to learn that almost 100 people were arrested twice on gun-related charges during the 17-month time period analyzed, and six defendants were arrested three times on such charges.

Certainly tougher laws to deter possession of illegal guns or to prevent repeat offenders from receiving suspended sentences are worth pursuing. But enactment of such legislation will take time and effort.

But it is equally reasonable to expect that the judiciary will do its part to impose punishment on those convicted of a crime to keep those who carry and use illegal firearms from getting back on the streets. The police and prosecutors can only do so much, and when they do their job well and a guilty verdict is rendered, the judiciary has to do its part to protect and provide safety for the public.

Baltimore City residents, employers and workers are increasingly frustrated and annoyed, and should be, by the drumbeat of gun violence. They have a right to demand that violators of the law, especially repeat offenders and violent criminals, receive punishments that fit their crime. That’s not a cure-all for all shootings and homicides, but it is part of the solution.

Police officers, crime investigators and prosecutors can engage in a “war room” strategy session about arresting and prosecuting violent offenders.

Understandably, judges can’t be a part of that effort. Their role is to be impartial and to ensure that justice is dispensed fairly. But that role also includes ensuring that the public is protected from dangerous and violent criminal actors.

For a law enforcement strategy to be effective it is essential that all parties are accountable and perform their duties and responsibility to the fullest.

Baltimore remains in “a major public safety crisis” and an “all hands on deck” approach involves every part of law enforcement and justice.

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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