Shakeup in Baltimore mayor's criminal justice leadership

Mayor Rawlings-Blake makes changes to criminal justice team following spike in violence, recent unrest.

With Baltimore in the midst of one of its most violent stretches in years, a top criminal justice leader for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has left, marking the biggest shakeup in her administration since the recent rioting and unrest in the city.

Angela Johnese, the director of the Mayor's Office on Criminal Justice, had spent more than two years leading the office and played a key role in expanding Baltimore's youth curfew law last year, making it one of the strictest in the nation.

Additionally, Heather Brantner, the mayor's Sexual Assault Response Team coordinator, has left. Both departed Friday.

Howard Libit, a spokesman for Rawlings-Blake, confirmed Saturday that Johnese and Brantner are no longer in their positions, but he declined to say under what terms they left. He said he would not comment on "the specifics of personnel actions."

City Councilman Nick Mosby, a member of the Public Safety Committee, said the departures come at a time that is "problematic in urban areas like Baltimore, where every summer you see a spike in violence."

"They are the folks who have the road map of the initiatives and programs we're developing to really reduce crime," he said. "Their job is to plan throughout the year for the summer. It concerns me."

Mosby said city officials need to share what the plan is and the reasons were that prompted the departures.

"Was there a problem there? How can we implement the plans that should have been in place to make sure we are ahead of violence prevention as much as possible?" Mosby said.

City Councilman Brandon M. Scott, vice chairman of the Public Safety Committee, said he learned of the departures Friday but did not know the reasons for them.

"Angela was someone I worked closely with. To me, she was an advocate and an asset of doing things a different way," Scott said. "I held her in high regard."

Scott said Johnese was always responsive and informed. He said she shared his belief that the city's curfew centers — where juveniles are taken when they break curfew — be places of recreation and services and not holding areas, and he said she worked hard to staff the centers with the right people.

Several attempts to reach Johnese and Brantner were unsuccessful Saturday.

Lester Davis, a spokesman for Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young," said Young didn't know the reason for the departures but wants to get answers on the mayor's strategy. Young will be asking questions Wednesday when top police officials are expected to attend a budget hearing before the council, Davis said.

"That will be the first opportunity for some of these issues to be raised, and to get answers from the leadership of the [Police Department] about what their plan is and how they're going to deal with this surge in violence and some of the staffing turnover issues," Davis said.

Johnese made about $97,000, while Brantner made about $58,000, according to city records.

Libit said Rawlings-Blake plans to move quickly to replace them.

"The mayor is committed to both the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice and the employees of our sexual assault response efforts," Libit said. "We will be bringing in talented and qualified new leadership shortly."

The departures of Johnese and Brantner come a few weeks after LeVar Michael, the city's program director of the anti-violence initiative Operation Ceasefire, left his job voluntarily, according to city officials. Johnese's office is running that program while city officials search for a new director, so her departure leaves Ceasefire in further flux.

Ceasefire, a celebrated violence prevention program that monitors people who are considered repeat violent offenders, was brought back to Baltimore last year by Rawlings-Blake. The program began operating in West Baltimore, and by the end of the year that area had cut its homicides by half, to 21, compared with the previous year. Rawlings-Blake hailed the program as a major reason behind the decline in homicides.

The decreases have not been replicated this year as at least 22 people have been killed in the district as of Saturday — the most of any of the city's nine police districts.

The Rev. Cortly "C.D." Witherspoon Sr., president of the Baltimore branch of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, said he believes the mayor wants to rid herself of staffers who have helped craft the city's crime strategies before she runs for re-election next year. He said Johnese's departure sends strong signals.

"It's an admission that she knows the policing strategy in Baltimore City is not working," said Witherspoon, who led many of the protests in the city over the last year.

Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts acknowledged this past week that officers have struggled to do basic police work in the Western District, saying that they have been routinely surrounded by dozens of people, video cameras and hostility.

Overall, Baltimore has experienced 42 homicides in the last 30 days, part of an unusual surge of shootings that started about the same time Freddie Gray was arrested on April 12 in West Baltimore.

Gray's death a week later from fatal injuries prosecutors said he sustained in a police transport van launched the city into massive protests, clashes with police and incidents of rioting, arson and looting. Six police officers have been criminally charged in connection with Gray's arrest and death.

The city's homicide count increased to 105 on Saturday, 32 more killings than at the same time last year. Nonfatal shootings are up more than 70 percent.

At least 11 people were shot and five killed since 11 p.m. Friday in gunfire across the city.

Doug Ward, director of the Johns Hopkins University's Division of Public Safety Leadership, said he's not surprised to see such high-level changes.

"If the leaders weren't as successful as one would reasonably expect, given the dire circumstances, and you think someone else could do a better job, you almost have to do that," Ward said. "The citizens of Baltimore deserve the best team that can be put together. We're all judged on outcomes."

The departures follow another high-level move by Rawlings-Blake. In March, she replaced Robert Maloney, the deputy mayor for public safety, with Stephanie Robinson, and restructured the position as the director of public safety.

Maloney, who earned $136,000 last year, had overseen the police and fire departments, along with other agencies. He returned to his former job as director of the Mayor's Office of Emergency Management.

Robinson, who earns $105,000, is a liaison to the city's public safety agencies, including the police and fire departments.

Johnese joined the mayor's Cabinet in March 2013. A lawyer and juvenile justice policy expert, she was charged with coordinating the city's criminal justice programs across multiple agencies. She led the city's efforts last summer to expand the youth curfew.

Johnese's role in the mayor's office also involved administering state and federal grant money for crime reduction.

Johnese used the youth curfew as a way to find children in distress, and the curfew centers were designed as places to connect the families to social service programs.

At the time of her hiring, Rawlings-Blake praised Johnese for her "commitment to developing alternatives and solutions for young people." The mayor said that focus would "support our efforts to create long-term reductions in crime."

The need to find more ways to improve opportunities for young people has been a focus of city leaders and advocates since last month's rioting.

Before joining the mayor's office, Johnese was juvenile justice policy director for Advocates for Children and Youth, a Baltimore-based group that promotes policies and programs designed to improve the lives of children in Maryland. Johnese had worked on reducing school arrests and addressing disparities in school discipline while in that position.

She also served as a staff attorney for similar groups in New Orleans.

Johnese said her goal for joining the Rawlings-Blake administration was to "keep lowering crime and creating opportunities for residents," according to a statement from 2013.

Rawlings-Blake hired Brantner in 2011 to help run the city's Sexual Assault Response Team after The Baltimore Sun found that the city for years led the country in the percentage of rape cases deemed "unfounded" by detectives. The Sun found that police had not even taken a report in a number of cases.

An audit, ordered by the mayor, showed that more than half of the cases investigated were misclassified over a 20-month period.

Brantner had previously overseen residential programs at Howard County's domestic violence center for six years.

Councilman Warren Branch, chairman of the Public Safety Committee, said he did not know Johnese had left the job.

"We had a pretty good relationship," Branch said. "I wish her well in her future endeavors. She's going to be missed."

Councilman Bill Henry said the moves suggest the mayor is ready to rethink her administration's approach to fighting crime. He wants the city to take a more holistic approach that involves affordable housing, job creation and addiction treatment.

"If the mayor is using a big broom and making a clean sweep of her internal operations in regard to dealing with criminal justice in the city, then it strikes me as we have a great opportunity to do things differently," Henry said. "Many of us have been saying for years that we are not going to police our way out of the situation.

"My hope would be that these moves on the mayor's part are the beginning of a new commitment to a more holistic approach to public safety."

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