Mayor Catherine Pugh on Wednesday named a new director of criminal justice and released an updated plan she said will stem Baltimore’s persistent violence.
As the city suffers a record homicide rate, Pugh said the plan is an “enhancement” of the strategy she campaigned on last year.
“I didn’t come into City Hall without a vision,” she said. “I don’t want people to think we came into City Hall without a plan, because we did.”
Pugh laid out several steps her administration has already taken to bolster policing, including putting more officers on patrol and improving police training and technology.
“This is urgent,” she said. “I can’t say it any louder.”
The mayor also called for a holistic approach to fighting crime, to include engaging youth, promoting community health and growing jobs. And she proposed making Baltimore City Community College free for city public school graduates beginning with the class of 2018.
City Councilman Brandon Scott, a frequent critic of the mayor, cheered the plan’s release. But Scott, who chairs the council’s public safety committee, said he was “expecting and hoping for more.”
“There is still a need for us to have a more in-depth plan with accountability and goals and measurable targets,” he said.
Politicians and activists had pressed the mayor for weeks to release her anti-violence plan. Many called on her to name a director for the Mayor’s Office on Criminal Justice. The office has traditionally helped coordinate crime strategy in the city.
On Wednesday, Pugh announced that Drew Vetter, chief of staff of the Baltimore Police Department, would lead the office.
“Violence impacts everybody,” Vetter said. “It doesn’t matter what the nature of the circumstances are, every murder in the city is tragic. I think we can all agree that the level of violence in the city should not continue.”
Scott praised the choice but questioned why it took the mayor so long to fill the job.
Vetter “has been a pleasure to work with,” Scott said. “But it is a far cry from what the council was told on June 2, that a national search was being done and the position would be filled in a month.”
Scott said it was important for Pugh to give Vetter the autonomy to be independent from the Police Department.
“His ability to push back on the police commissioner really is going to be dependent on the power invested in him by the mayor,” Scott said.
The mayor also named a new director of the government accountability agency CitiStat. Kendra Parlock will replace former CitiStat director Sameer Sidh, who left the office recently.
Parlock said she’s considering renaming CitiStat as “City Smart.” The data-tracking agency was created under the administration of Mayor Martin O’Malley and once functioned at more than a dozen city agencies. During Sidh’s tenure as director, the agency tracked blight, business climate and homelessness, among other subjects.
“Data-driven decisions in government really has its roots here in Baltimore,” Parlock said.
About 200 members of Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development rallied near the home of a 97-year-old homicide victim last week to urge Pugh to release a comprehensive strategy to fight violence. The call came as the city suffers a 17 percent spike in violent crime year over year.
The Rev. Andrew Foster Connors, co-chairman of BUILD, said Wednesday that Pugh’s plan lacks measurable goals and accountability.
“We can’t PR our way out of the violence epidemic,” he said. “It’s a start but that’s all it is. As she said herself, it’s a lot of restating what’s already been stated. I don’t see how the plan put forward today is going to change outcomes.”
Pugh said she expects CitiStat will develop metrics to track the plan’s success.
Pugh’s proposal to make the city community college free to Baltimore public school students was new.
“What we are going to do in Baltimore City is make Baltimore City Community College free,” she said. “We are going to track our young people at the high school level. We want them to have a work plan and we will follow them. We want to know what colleges and universities they’re going to.”
Baltimore City Community College, which is run by the state, brings in about $13 million in tuition and fees. Pugh said she believed covering tuition for city public school graduates would cost about $1.5 million a year.
The president of the community college was not available for comment Wednesday.
The mayor has long said she had a crime plan, but she had not made it public. Last month, she summarized her efforts to lean on state and federal resources for help while also focusing police on gang members and so-called trigger-pullers. The mayor’s office continues to discuss state aid with Gov. Larry Hogan’s office. Pugh, a Democrat, plans to meet with the Republican governor soon to finalize an agreement.
The Police Department, meanwhile, has reassigned 150 officers to special squads intended to tackle neighborhoods hit hardest by crime.
The council’s public safety committee, led by Scott, offered its own ideas to address violence last week, including short-term efforts to boost the number of officers on the streets and longer-term plans to tackle social ills believed to drive crime.
“I’m willing to offer up myself and sit with them and actually develop a more comprehensive approach,” Scott said.
The appointment of Vetter drew more praise. State Sen. Bill Ferguson said he’s worked with Vetter over the past four years and called him “smart, driven and thoughtful.”
“The mayor has appointed a talented public servant who understands the limits and capacity of the Baltimore Police Department and government overall,” the Baltimore Democrat said.
City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young said Vetter will help get the crime rate “under control.”
“It’s going to take all of us to really stop the crime in Baltimore City,” he said. “The Police Department can’t do it by itself. Government can’t do it by itself."
Community leaders in Baltimore held a “ceasefire” event last weekend, asking for 72 hours with no killings. Two people were killed, but Pugh said the effort showed the community is standing up against violence.
“The thing I like about the ceasefire folks is they’re in the action,” she said. “It’s one thing to sit on the sidelines. It’s another thing to get into the action. We have a sense of urgency about reducing violence in our city. … There has always been a sense of urgency."