Baltimore prosecutors, police create new unit devoted to convicting gun offenders

New "Gun Violence Enforcement Division" in Baltimore will focus on one thing: convictions.

Baltimore's two top law enforcement officials are assembling a team of "elite" prosecutors and police detectives to secure convictions against violent gun offenders, they said Wednesday.

What is being called the Gun Violence Enforcement Division, to be housed within the office of Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby, could involve as many as 13 prosecutors.

Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said the Police Department will contribute at least one sergeant and four detectives, all of whom have specialized training and experience with gun violence.

Authorities have created similar partnerships in the past, but Mosby said the new team will have the added benefit of intelligence gathered in the last year — including a list of 602 identified "trigger pullers" — to target specific individuals.

It will be organized to mirror the EXILE program used by federal prosecutors, officials said. That program aims to attach long prison sentences to gun crimes.

Mosby said the unit would have one responsibility: "to ensure the aggregation of intelligence that's extracted from my criminal strategies unit and the Baltimore Police Department is used to not only apprehend and charge, but to convict those who are administering gun violence in the city."

Davis said police and prosecutors already know who is responsible for gun violence in Baltimore. The new team, he said, will "ensure that every aspect of that case is the highest, highest quality, so when it gets into a courtroom, we can have a successful resolution.

"And when I say 'we' can have a successful resolution, I mean the community, because the community is tired of violent repeat offenders getting out again and again and again, and we realize we have a collective responsibility to do something new, something different."

The unit is the latest initiative to be introduced in the last several years under multiple state's attorneys and police commissioners, and it remains to be seen just how different it will be from past collaborations.

The state's attorney's office has been grappling for decades with how to target the worst offenders and drive down gun crime.

Before 1997, nonfatal shootings and gun charges were handled by general felony prosecutors who didn't get the cases until shortly before trial.

Then-State's Attorney Patricia Jessamy secured federal grant funding to create a unit to focus on guns: the Firearms Investigation Violence Enforcement — or F.I.V.E. — unit.

State grant funds allowed the unit to grow in size and scope, from a handful of attorneys to 15 prosecutors who handled hundreds of cases, including all nonfatal shooting and felony gun cases.

Matthew Fraling led the F.I.V.E. unit from 2009 to 2011.

"It took on a lot more than it had initially conceptualized," said Fraling, now a defense attorney.

The unit kept meticulous statistics on its performance, which didn't always reflect well on its efforts, Fraling said. With its expansion, the unit was taking on all gun cases instead of being more selective.

"Our numbers were not great with regard to convictions, because of the nature of the cases we were dealing with," Fraling said. "It is very difficult to get a conviction when the victim identifies a guy and then at trial says, 'That's not the guy that shot me,' which is quintessential Baltimore."

State's Attorney Gregg Bernstein, Mosby's predecessor, disbanded the F.I.V.E. unit in favor of a new Major Investigations Unit that took on top-priority defendants regardless of whether they had been caught with a gun or not.

The unit focused on building large cases, but its prosecutors would also handle on a day-to-day basis seemingly minor cases against repeat offenders.

That meant other shooting and gun cases went back to the busy general felony unit, which handles a wide variety of serious cases that are not homicides or sex crimes.

Mosby said the new team will be different from both the F.I.V.E. unit and the Major Investigations Unit, which still exists, because it will focus on specific gun offenders who have already been identified as top drivers of violence in the city.

There have been more than 650 shootings in Baltimore this year, officials said Wednesday, including 177 of the city's 215 homicides. Guns are also used regularly in other violent crimes, such as robberies.

Mosby said the "dismal" closure rate for nonfatal shootings, which currently stands at 22 percent, and the recent shootings of young children, teenagers and elderly residents motivated her to launch the new team.

She said the team will need help.

"We need the community to ensure that our continual collaboration and the impact of this unit is successful," she said. "The community plays a significant role in changing the trajectory of our city, and this is just another step to eradicate the normalization of violence that far too many of us have become all too accustomed to."

Fraling said the effort will need strong attorneys and focus to be successful.

"So many quality individuals have left the office," he said. "It doesn't mean there are not still quality people there, but if she's going to go forward with that initiative and wants it to be successful, she's got to staff it with quality people."

Mosby said she is still in the process of selecting prosecutors, but has "the most talented prosecutors in the country" working for her.

"We want the right person," she said. "We're trying to vet some of our senior prosecutors within the office to run the unit, and then we're going to vet some of our most talented junior attorneys as well."

Davis said he has already identified the members of the police department who will join the team, but was "just not prepared" to name them.

Mosby and Davis declined to give a date for when the team will be fully operational.

krector@baltsun.com

twitter.com/rectorsun.

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