Hamm: Police helping neighborhoods ‘change value systems’

The Baltimore City Police Department will target 20 high-violence neighborhoods for “safe zone” interventions in 2006 as part of its efforts to combat a 4 percent spike in crime so far this year, Police Commissioner Leonard Hamm told the GBC.

The “safe zone” concept employs a combination of concentrated enforcement with community building services and activities to help residents of violence-prone areas regain a neighborhood sense of normalcy and social civility, Hamm explained to members of the GBC Public Safety and Legal Affairs Committee. Hamm and two senior police officials – Lt. Col. John Skinner and Major Richard Hite – briefed committee members on the force’s current crime reduction efforts.

In a “safe zone” deployment, city police first concentrate “heavy enforcement” on a 10-block area identified for its high incidence of violence, Skinner said.

“Safe Zone” tactics include diverting all traffic, except for residents, away from the neighborhood to stabilize the area and, among other things, to keep customers away from any drug dealers that may operate there. Such tactics have had the effect of “stabilizing a neighborhood overnight,” said Skinner, who is in charge of “Safe Zone” initiatives.

Police also bring to the neighborhood “large amounts” of city resources and social service teams to help residents improve their neighborhoods. In addition to city resources, community building assistance is also provided by nonprofits and businesses, including the Baltimore Ravens, who support the police efforts with player appearances at community events organized in conjunction with “Safe Zone” interventions.

A second phase of the process includes enrolling juvenile offenders, ages 14 to 17, from the neighborhood into a seven-week program designed to alter their impressions of police, understand concepts of community and teamwork, talk with victims of violent crime, and gain career development assistance, according to Skinner.

In 2005, the “safe zone” was deployed in five neighborhoods, all of which experienced dramatic and sustained lower crime rates after the intervention. Police also noted a surprising lack of shifting crime and violence to adjacent neighborhoods. There was some “displacement violence,” said Skinner, but not the quantity that existed in the targeted neighborhood.

Meanwhile, Maj. Hite outlined the department’s “Get Out of the Game” program where police teams work with perennial offenders to “give them the opportunity to change their lives, and also to help their communities change.” Service providers and businesses working to empower offenders to join the community, rather than remain outsiders, also support this effort.

“It lets people in violent neighborhoods know that there is somebody out there who cares,” said Hite.

Hamm noted that the spike in crime so far in 2006 follows a year in which police recorded the sharpest reduction in crime since 1970. “Everything was down” in 2005, he said.

Last year, 55 to 75 percent of homicides were drug related. “But this year, something is different,” said Hamm. “There is an evil, mean-spirited feeling out there that is causing people to hurt each other.”

The “Safe Zone” and “Get Out of the Game” programs are ways to enable the police to go a step beyond enforcement. To achieve substantial, permanent reductions in violent crime, “we have to create a situation where neighborhoods change their value systems,” said Hamm.

Annual data on crime in Baltimore City

Video of an officer assigned to the “Get Out of the Game” initiative

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