Baltimore’s top law enforcement leaders say they are working closely together to fight crime — but the community should not expect a turnaround soon.
State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby and Police Commissioner Kevin Davis, in an exclusive joint interview with The Baltimore Sun, say they are overseeing crime-fighting in a different climate than six years ago, when the city experienced fewer than 200 homicides for the first time in decades. Both officials claimed those past gains were achieved using heavy-handed tactics that have been disavowed.
“There was a price to pay for” the drop below 200 homicides, a price “that manifested itself in April and May of 2015,” Davis said, referring to the uprising following the death of Freddie Gray. “I think the long view is that doing it the right way is doing it the hard way, and I think most Baltimoreans realize that the way forward is not always going to be easy.”
Mosby agreed. “People want to look for an overnight solution, but a lot of what has gotten us to this place didn’t happen overnight.”
She said Baltimore “is kind of in transition right now. At the end of the day, we’re making a lot of positive changes.”
Baltimore is on track for more than 300 killings for the third consecutive year. Among the latest victims was a 15-year-old boy who was gunned down in the middle of the afternoon Tuesday, the third teenager killed this month. In addition to spiking crime, authorities have continued to grapple with scandals that have led to criminal charges against officers and the dropping of scores of court cases.
At times, public comments by Mosby and Davis have appeared at odds, but in the joint interview the two officials said they work closely and rely on each other.
“There’s a co-dependence,” Mosby said. “It’s really important to collaborate and meet to be on the same page, for the safety and betterment of Baltimore.”
“I think we’re both leading at a very historic time,” Davis added. “Our predecessors — they had their challenges, but whatever challenges they had pale in comparison to what we face both in terms of crime, and the demands from the public for the criminal justice system to perform at a much higher level than we have in the past.”
Mayor Catherine E. Pugh released her plan this month for stemming the city’s persistent violence. She later told The Sun’s editorial board that she expects a 10 percent to 20 percent reduction in crime within a year.
Daniel Webster, a Johns Hopkins University professor who meets regularly with Davis and Mosby and their counterparts to discuss strategies to combat gun crime, said both appear committed and are looking for answers.
“They are clearly frustrated. Anybody would be,” Webster said. “They’re working really, really hard, and they’re still facing very high rates of violence. For the most part, they’re not pointing fingers, and they’re trying to do their jobs.”
Drew Vetter, who was recently named to lead Pugh’s Office on Criminal Justice, said he witnessed firsthand the collaboration in his previous role as Davis’ chief of staff. In his new position, he will be exploring how to strengthen cooperation between police and prosecutors.
“I think public safety demands that there is frequent and productive conversations between the two agencies,” Vetter said.
Mosby and Davis addressed several recent issues where their approaches seemed to diverge:
• Body camera controversies: Police have made national headlines for body camera videos that critics argue show officers planting evidence. When the second video surfaced earlier this month, Davis said he did not believe there was any wrongdoing on the part of the officers, and no one was suspended. But Mosby’s office dropped dozens of cases involving the officers depicted in the videos.
Davis said that even if investigation determines that officers shown in the videos have done nothing wrong, he understands prosecutors have more to consider.
“My caution to folks to reserve judgment until the investigation is completed, I think that’s one thing. And I think the state’s attorney being confronted with pending cases and making a decision based on the best interest of justice is another,” Davis said.
“Clearly, the credibility of that officer is at issue,” Mosby said of one of the officers shown in the videos. “That’s totally different from the determination as to whether there’s misconduct and criminality.”
Davis and Mosby said they met last Wednesday to discuss “issues” surrounding body cameras; on Monday, her office announced a third video had surfaced and that prosecutors had dropped more than 40 cases.
• Mayor Pugh’s proposal to impose a one-year mandatory minimum on anyone convicted of illegally possessing a handgun. Pugh and Davis were joined by a slew of city and state officials to announce the bill, but the city’s top prosecutor was noticeably absent. While Mosby eventually expressed her support for the legislation, she did not offer testimony to the City Council in support.
“You have to prioritize things,” she said. “We’ve been dealing with 50,000 cases we prosecute a year in Baltimore City.”
Davis came to her defense, saying the bill was “such a common-sense practical approach to violence that it shouldn’t take the State’s Attorney to jump up and down about it.”
The City Council weakened the bill significantly and has yet to take a final vote.
• Homicide cases: Police walked away from a handshake agreement in place for years in which homicide detectives would defer to prosecutors before filing charges against a murder suspect. The police department instead created an internal review panel composed of commanders who can authorize charges or direct detectives to additional work that must be performed.
Mosby said she didn’t interpret that move as circumventing her office. “That’s fine with us. We’re OK with that,” she said. “There haven’t been that many cases where we’ve disagreed.”
The rate of closing of homicide cases has jumped dramatically this year, with the homicide unit claiming a rate of 57.3 percent. If the rate holds, that would be nearly 20 percentage points higher than the homicide clearance rate for 2016.
Mosby and Davis pointed to other initiatives in place that they say are key to attacking crime. They said they collaborated to set up the State’s Attorney’s Office’s Gun Violence Enforcement Division, in which prosecutors and detectives work together to build strong gun cases. Though the state’s attorney’s Major Investigations Unit has had a lower profile than under the previous administration, Mosby and Davis say the unit continues to work closely with police.
Davis said he spoke with Mosby before launching a new opioid task force that is going after drug dealers who supply lethal doses.
Mosby said youth engagement remains a key priority for her office, and said police have helped make her programs successful.
“It’s so important right now, when the crime trends indicate an increase in youth violence, for us to be able to proactively get these young folks before they get to the criminal justice system,” she said.
Mosby cited zero-tolerance policing as a “failed strategy” that continued in Baltimore long after it was formally disavowed by the city’s leaders. “Those failed policies are what got us to the place we were at in the spring of 2015,” she said, referring to the unrest.
Davis noted that his agency is operating with about 500 fewer officers than a few years ago, when the city experienced several years of declines in gun violence. He said the police department at that time employed a strategy that won’t be duplicated.
“It was a geographic takeover strategy of neighborhoods, that cast nets over neighborhoods that happened to be overwhelmingly poor, overwhelmingly African-American, overwhelmingly impacted by all the failings of society. And they [celebrated] when they got to a certain artificial number of murders,” he said. “As if 200 murders is acceptable for a city of 600,000 people.”