Hopkins study finds disbanded Baltimore Police plainclothes unit provided most effective violence strategy, despite problems

A new study of Baltimore policing strategies to combat gun violence from 2003 to 2017 has concluded the most effective was the so-called “hot spots” program that sent plainclothes detectives into violent neighborhoods to focus on illegal gun possession and individuals with a history of gun offenses.

The study by the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research also acknowledged, citing previous reporting by The Baltimore Sun, that the actions of those detectives under the now-dismantled Violent Crime Impact Section, or VCIS, generated many abuse complaints and were the subject of expensive lawsuits for the city.

“The reductions in shootings connected with Baltimore’s VCIS are consistent with the experiences of other cities that have used specialized police units targeting illegal gun possession in areas with the highest rates of shootings,” Daniel Webster, the center’s director and the study’s lead author, said Thursday. “But it is important for these programs to be carried out in a manner that is legally justified, professional, and acceptable to the communities they serve with appropriate accountability.”

The findings come amid pleas from local residents for solutions to the city’s violent crime surge in recent years. Baltimore has experienced record or near-record homicide rates over the past three years. Last year, with 343 homicides in a city of about 615,000 residents, was the deadliest ever on a per-capita basis.

The study also comes as mandated police reform efforts are under way as part of a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice, which in 2016 outlined widespread discriminatory and unconstitutional policing practices in the city — particularly in the same poor, predominantly black neighborhoods where VCIS and its predecessor units were most active.

The Justice Department’s 2016 findings were prompted by the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray from injuries suffered in police custody and the subsequent rioting in the city in 2015. They preceded the indictments last year of most members of the police department’s Gun Trace Task Force, another plainclothes unit that was praised for its work taking guns off the streets until federal prosecutors alleged its members were robbing citizens and stealing guns, drugs and cash. Six officers have pleaded guilty.

Police Commissioner Kevin Davis did away with plainclothes officers — known on the streets as “knockers” — after the indictments, favoring instead new uniformed units known as District Action Teams.

On Thursday, T.J. Smith, a police spokesman, said the department’s “focus is violent repeat offenders and ‘trigger pullers,’” including in “hot spots.”

“We’ve been very clear on that including our push for increased penalties on gun offenders, not drug abusers,” Smith said. “Our Violence Reduction Initiative focuses on such ‘hot spots’ and violent offenders in them.”

Some longtime observers of policing in Baltimore say Davis erred in discarding the entire plainclothes model, when he should have focused on improving it, because it worked.

The Hopkins study seems to support that notion.

It found that the deployment of the VCIS unit was associated with a statistically significant 12 to 13 percent reduction in homicides, and with 19 percent fewer shootings than it predicted would have occurred had the unit not been deployed.

Webster said the successes of VCIS could be replicated under stricter controls and supervision by the department without replicating the unconstitutional actions of some of the VCIS detectives of the past.

“While some of them did inappropriate things, generally they were your better officers, they were applied to the times and places and people that mattered the most, and they got impact. I believe you can do that without running into the problems that VCIS did,” he said. “Will there be somebody who does the wrong thing at some time? Probably. But I think you can do it with much better accountability and fewer problems.”

In addition to the VCIS model, the Hopkins study reviewed the impact of drug arrests, the former Ceasefire program that sought to offer support services to identified violent offenders as an alternative to violence, and the currently expanding Safe Streets program, which uses street-wise violence interrupters to prevent violence through dialogue and mediation of street disputes.

The Hopkins study did not assess the impact of the Gun Trace Task Force on violence.

The study found that drug arrests might reduce violence in the months immediately following them, but also can have “violence-generating effects” later on. It found that major, coordinated busts of drug crews with a nexus of violence can have a larger impact — including a 25 percent reduction in shootings within the affected area for six months following the busts.

The study found that Ceasefire was not associated with a reduction in homicides and nonfatal shootings in the areas where it operated.

The study also found “no effects” of Safe Streets on homicides “when the effects were aggregated across all sites implementing the program since 2007.”

The study found, for instance, that there has been a 39 percent reduction in homicides in Cherry Hill since the Safe Streets site there opened, but that homicides doubled in Elwood Park during the 20 months in which there was a Safe Streets site operating there.

The study found Safe Streets is associated with an 8 to 9 percent decrease in nonfatal shootings, but called the finding “not statistically significant.” Like with homicides, the impact of Safe Streets on non-fatal shootings varied from site to site, the study found.

Webster, who serves as co-chair for Safe Streets’ advisory board and has previously studied the program and found promising results, said he was “disappointed” by the findings.

“There’s reason to be concerned about the current Safe Streets program, and my feeling is that if you simply leave it as is, I’m not as confident that we would get much better results,” Webster said.

But, he said, providing the program with more resources, as Mayor Catherine Pugh promised to do last month when she announced the number of Safe Streets sites in the city would be more than doubled, could increase its impact.



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