Don Fry Commentary: New Solutions to End “Culture of Violence” in Baltimore

As we near the mid-point of the year it’s shaping up to be another grim one for Baltimore in terms of violent crime.

As of June 26, there were 152 homicides in the city, compared to 133 at the same time last year, according to Baltimore City Police Department data, an increase of 14 percent. If the pace continues the city will regrettably book more than 300 murders for another consecutive year dating back to 2015.

The majority of the deaths – 137 or 90 percent – are the result of gun violence. While that is a deeply disturbing number, it doesn’t paint the whole picture when it comes to the gun violence occurring in Baltimore.

Non-fatal shootings have jumped significantly this year as well – 344 as of June 26, compared to 275 as of the same date last year. That’s an alarming increase of 25 percent.

The shootings and tragic deaths underscore not only that the city has a “culture of violence,” as Baltimore City Police Commissioner Michael Harrison stated recently, but that guns are widely available.

That grim fact is true regardless of age, notes Yotam Zeira, Director of Strategy and External Affairs for Roca, a non-profit which works with high-risk youths aged 16-24. Roca steers such youths away from getting involved in crime.

“For the youths we are working with in Baltimore, the least of their concerns is getting a gun,” Zeira notes. “Guns are everywhere.”

Roca, which is based in Boston, established operations in Baltimore a year ago.

A key difference that Roca leaders have observed between Baltimore and Boston is the level and intensity of the violence. Boston, which has a population of about 685,000, logged 56 murders in 2018. By comparison, Baltimore with a population of about 620,000 experienced 309 homicides.

“Baltimore is at a whole other level of violence and dysfunction,” said Zeira.

With all this as a backdrop, new approaches and solutions are sorely needed – all of which will be discussed at the Gun Violence in Urban America program hosted by the Greater Baltimore Committee on July 11.

The event will feature several local and national experts: Molly Baldwin, Founder and CEO, Roca; Ganesha Martin, Baltimore Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice; Daniel Webster, Director of Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, Major Lloyd Wells, Eastern District, Baltimore City Police Department and Thomas Abt, Senior Research Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

Mr. Abt is the author of the recently released book, Bleeding Out: The Devastating Consequences of Urban Violence – and a Bold New Plan for Peace in the Streets.

Thankfully, some new solutions are underway.

The Roca program, which has enrolled 78 high-risk youths this year and hopes to enroll 175 more by July 2020, is one of the new solutions in place.

Another new solution is Commissioner Harrison’s announcement that officers are being assigned to spend more time patrolling 120 hot spots or “micro zones” that have been identified with high rates of crime and violence during the past five years. This data-driven effort will involve officers investing more time directly with residents and business owners, as well as traditional law enforcement activities.

Abt, the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and book author, says the Roca program and Commissioner Harrison’s hot-spots plan represent steps in the right direction and are backed by evidence-based research.

But to truly succeed, Alt maintains that the city will need a portfolio of policies based on key strategies that his and other research have shown over time can reduce violence in urban settings.

The bottom line, Abt noted, is that to successfully address urban violence police, prosecutors, elected officials and other stakeholders must concentrate on the individuals, places and behaviors that are at the root of the majority of violent crime in their city.

For that to work, Abt’s research has found, it is critical that key decision leaders are all on the same page on the key principles and values underpinning the strategies and tactics selected to address urban violence. Criticism and political posturing around the issue can sidetrack or undermine progress.

A more comprehensive crime plan will likely be advanced by Commissioner Harrison. That will be the time for elected officials, community groups, business leaders and residents to ask the tough questions. But once those questions are addressed, it will be imperative for all parties to join together and support the plan to reduce violent crime.

The good news, notes Abt, is that in so doing the “culture of violence” can be brought to an end sooner rather than later.

Donald C. Fry is President and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee. He is a frequent contributor to The Daily Record. This column originally appeared in The Daily Record  on Friday, June 28.

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