Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh's first-year agenda overwhelmed by city violence

Every time an emergency happens in Baltimore — a shooting, stabbing or fire — Mayor Catherine Pugh receives an alert on her phone.

Some days, it seems, her phone never stops buzzing.

In her first year as mayor, the 67-year-old former state senator has taken steps to reduce unemployment, shored up funding for schools and torn down public monuments to the Confederacy.

But whatever progress she might be making on those fronts has been overwhelmed by the rising concern among city residents, community activists and business leaders that Baltimore’s crime rate remains persistently and staggeringly high — and nothing officials have done to address it seems to be having any effect.

The number of homicides in Baltimore this year has soared above 300 for a third straight year. Carjackings have jumped by 32 percent since last year. The city is on pace to end 2017 with more than 1,000 shootings.

“The thing I’m most frustrated with is the violence,” Pugh says. “It’s frustrating because you know it takes time. It’s frustrating because it’s a problem that demands attention.”

Elected last year in a close Democratic primary with rival Sheila Dixon, Pugh came into office last December promising a series of initiatives, several of which she enacted quickly. She broke up Baltimore Housing into two agencies, asserted mayoral control of the school board, put up thousands of new street lights and deployed a jobs van to neighborhoods with high unemployment.

She created a program to employ thesqueegee boys who stand in the street to wash windshields for cash, and held a jobs convention that attracted 4,000 attendees.

The city has gained nearly 6,000 jobs this year, and unemployment has fallen to 5.2 percent — the lowest rate in almost a decade.

Pugh works long hours — she often starts her day with a 5 a.m. run in the dark — and doesn’t return to her Ashburton home until almost midnight. She says she sleeps only a few hours a night. One recent Tuesday, her schedule included 10 different meetings and events, with business leaders, fellow officials and members of the community.

But crime has overshadowed much of her work.

“If people don’t feel safe — rightly or wrongly — there’s not much else you can focus on,” says Mark J. McLaurin, political director of the local branch of the Service Employees International Union.

McLaurin, a Pugh supporter who considers the mayor a friend, was disappointed that she reneged on a campaign promise to sign legislation to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2020. He also faults her recent decision to award a $50,000 police-style SUV to the Shomrim community watch group in Northwest Baltimore, when he said other parts of the city are suffering more from crime.

“I don’t think anyone loves the city more than she does. She has the best of motivations,” McLaurin said. “But she’s had some missteps. She really is a workhorse for the city. But so many things are coming at her so fast. Unfortunately, she’s had to be more reactive than proactive. She’s been too much on defense her first year.”

Pugh agrees that crime is Baltimore’s most pressing challenge. She has said violence in the city is “out of control,” and has directed 30 agency heads to meet every morning with Police Commissioner Kevin Davis, a move that makes reducing crime the top mission not only of the Police Department, but also of health workers, housing officials and public works crews.

Although Pugh released an anti-violence plan during her campaign — and an updated version in August — many say the administration is still struggling to address crime. The killing of a restaurant worker in Locust Point and attacks by youths against tourists have garnered headlines in recent weeks, and the city is reeling from the unsolved killing of police Det. Sean Suiter. Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis on Friday asked federal authorities to take over the investigation.

Arrests have declined by 5 percent to their lowest level in at least four mayoral administrations, and gun arrests are down 25 percent. Eight members of the Police Department’s elite Gun Trace Task Force, the unit charged with getting illegal guns out of the hands of trigger-pullers, have been indicted on racketeering charges for allegedly shaking down suspects and innocent citizens.

The Mayor's Office on Criminal Justice spent the first half of 2017 in disarray. Staff were leaving and the anti-violence Operation Ceasefire program was canceled.

Gov. Larry Hogan, who has generally supported Pugh, said this week he wasn’t sure what her crime-fighting strategy was. "I don't know that there is a plan,” Hogan told reporters in Annapolis. The Republican governor pledged to develop his own plan to reduce the violence.

Councilman Brandon Scott, chairman of the council’s public safety committee, has emerged as one of Pugh’s most prominent critics. He said he thought the mayor has been too slow to act on crime at a time when his constituents are looking for immediate action.

“It was almost immediately that we started to butt heads on police and crime-related things,” he said. “My biggest letdown and disappointment: They were not prepared when they got there with a comprehensive plan.”

Former Mayor Kurt Schmoke said Pugh didn’t enter office expecting a surge in homicides, or understanding how crime would shape her first year.

“She understood that public safety was an important issue,” said Schmoke, now president of the University of Baltimore. “I know she was hoping that it wouldn't be the issue.”

“She clearly knows that’s issue No. 1 now.”

Pugh has focused on hiring more police. She believes the city’s force needs hundreds more officers. Her predecessor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, cut about 400 positions from the budget during her tenure.

Pugh has tasked the city’s new Bloomberg-funded Innovation Team with finding ways to ensure the city attracts police recruits, hires them more quickly and retains them.

“I said unfreeze positions and fill every vacancy,” she said.

Pugh laments how long it has taken to get new officers on the street. With background checks and training, the process can take more than a year. She has personally recruited officers to join the force, and says she’s inspired by the community’s efforts against violence.

“I’m excited about the people who come around the table and who have engaged neighborhoods and communities,” she said.

Pugh’s supporters say much of her good work has received little attention.

She’s landed well-known hires. Former federal Judge Andre Davis returned to Baltimore to become city solicitor. Former Baltimore County Executive Jim Smith is chief of strategic alliances. Former state Del. Pete Hammen is chief operating officer, and former state Del. Jill P. Carter heads the office of civil rights.

And she moved quickly in her first few months to put out several fires. The year opened with the mayor scrambling to finish the city’s consent decree with the U.S. Justice Department on police reforms before the Trump administration took office. Then she struck a deal with state officials to help close a $130 million budget gap in the public schools.

She has made a priority of promoting employment. She’s asked firefighters to hand out fliers directing unemployed Baltimoreans to job opportunities when they visit neighborhoods to distribute free smoke detectors. Workers in the Mayor’s Office of Employment Development have begun wearing vests that say, “Looking for a job? Ask me.”

She expanded night and weekend hours at recreation centers, launched a teen business challenge that encourages youth to start businesses, and held a youth summit.

After the white supremacist rally around a Confederate monument in Charlottesville, Va., turned deadly, she removed similar statues in Baltimore.

Scott, the councilman, praised her decisiveness on the issue.

“The leadership she showed with the Confederate statues was perfect,” he said. “I wouldn’t have done it any other way myself.”

Other mayoral decisions have sparked criticism.

She kept a staff member accused of campaign finance violations; installed bike lanes for cyclists but tore them out when neighbors complained, angering both sides; temporarily closed the Shake and Bake Family Fun Center; turned the city’s speed cameras back on and cleared a homeless encampment in front of City Hall.

Matt Gallagher ran the CitiStat program in Baltimore for Mayor Martin O’Malley.

“When you're the chief executive of the city, you have to take responsibility for everything,” said Gallagher, now president of the Goldseker Foundation. “I think she’s working very, very hard. People acknowledge how visible she is and how hands-on she is. She was great and decisive on the monuments. But that level of decisiveness and success is much more difficult when you’re dealing with systemic issues of poverty and racism.”

Roger Hartley, dean of the public affairs school at the University of Baltimore, said Pugh has faced a particular challenge developing relationships with the city council. All are Democrats, but eight of the council’s 15 members are also in their first year in public office, and many are to the left of the mayor politically. The mayor and council have clashed on raising the minimum wage, spending on after-school programs and imposing mandatory jail sentences on gun offenders.

“It’s not the same old Baltimore politics,” Hartley said. “She’s going to have to bend to the interests of these council members and vice versa. I think we're seeing the kind of political change that people voted for.”

City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young said he has developed a good relationship with Pugh after years of animosity with Rawlings-Blake. The mayor inherited difficult problems, Young said, but has plans in place to deal with them.

“Let’s give her a chance to put her stamp on this city,” he said. “She’s only been in there a year. Remember she came from state government. She was in city government briefly. It’s a big change.”

While Pugh has called for sending more police officers out on patrol and improving police training and technology, she says reducing violence will require a holistic approach. She speaks of engaging youth, promoting health and getting people jobs. She has proposed making Baltimore City Community College free for public school graduates in the city, beginning with this year’s high school seniors.

Ericka Alston-Buck founded the Kids Safe Zone, an after-school haven for youth in West Baltimore. She said the city tried cracking down on crime with mass arrests under O’Malley — a quick fix, she said, that ultimately didn’t work.

Taking a longer-term approach that focuses on youth, health, jobs and education puts the mayor in the uncomfortable situation of asking for more time while people continue to be gunned down. But Alston-Buck said it’s the right way to address the problem.

“There’s nothing that’s going to happen today that’s going to stop someone killing someone tomorrow,” she said.

Others urged the public to give the mayor time to allow her crime strategies to work.

Former police commissioner Leonard Hamm said crime spikes when other parts of society break down.

“I think [Pugh and Police Commissioner Davis] are trying to figure it out,” said Hamm, now police chief at Coppin State University. He said he would like to see Pugh stick with Davis and “give this guy a chance. He’s honest and he has integrity. I’ve been in that position, and I know this city is like a huge tanker on the ocean. It takes a long time to turn a tanker around.

“The question should be: ‘Do I see any positive changes?’”

Gregory Carpenter employs ex-offenders from Baltimore at a small bakery in Woodlawn. He said he hasn’t seen enough urgency from City Hall on helping convicts return to society. But he likes the mayor’s approach on youth.

“I think what she’s done with the youth, making resources available to them, I think that’s a good start,” he said. “As far as re-entry is concerned, I haven’t seen a lot of movement. We know clearly Baltimore’s crime rate and recidivism rate is still really high.”

But he thinks it might take divine intervention to fix what he sees as Baltimore’s two biggest problems: homicides and overdose deaths.

Overdoses, most of which involve opioids, kill twice as many people in Baltimore as bullets.

“We are really suffering,” Carpenter said. “We have to just pray to find our way out of this thing. The murder rate is just continuing to climb. It’s almost like there’s no end in sight.”

Pugh, too, says it will take time for her efforts against crime to work.

“I think we’re a long, long way from calling my violence reduction strategy a success,” she said. “I think we are a good ways toward the implementation of the violence reduction strategy.”

lbroadwater@baltsun.com

twitter.com/lukebroadwater

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