UMB students hear strategies for curbing Baltimore violence

University of Md, Baltimore conference focuses on trauma and grief — and how each contribute to crime ra

A top Baltimore police official outlined to a group of graduate students Sunday steps the agency is taking to recognize and respond to trauma and grief — including when the emotions affect those on the force.

Deputy Commissioner Darryl D. DeSousa said new training and policy initiatives are intended to teach city officers to see themselves as "guardians," as opposed to "warriors," under a broad plan designed to improve relationships with the communities they serve.

"We had to change our philosophy. Being the guardian requires a lot: training, engaging youth, engaging the community, speaking, talking about it," DeSousa said, addressing dozens of students at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, who are studying social work, medicine and other professions.

DeSousa joined a series of guest speakers for a two-day course on the factors that influence violence. He said more focus is on understanding and responding to the root causes of crime in the months since the unrest in Baltimore, Ferguson, Mo., and elsewhere following the deaths of black men in police custody.

In Baltimore, DeSousa said, the agency is returning to an emphasis on foot patrols so officers can better connect with residents by developing a rapport, including getting to know the children who live there. The goal is to keep the officers assigned to a single area for at least three years. The agency also is working to teach the officers historical context about different parts of the city.

Other steps include finding a new vendor to provide psychological services to officers to deal with the toll of the violence they encounter, a push to recruit more locals for the force and the full implementation of a body camera program, DeSousa said.

Veena Katikineni, a third-year medical student from Bethesda, said the information she gleaned from DeSousa's presentation and others at the forum will help her better understand and serve patients. Every piece of information can help, especially for brief emergency room encounters, she said.

"As a med student, we don't necessarily get too much exposure to the social back drop and understanding how that trauma and violence form," Katikineni said. "What are the different problems in the different neighborhoods?"

Alyssa Budros, a social work graduate student from Traverse City, Mich., said she appreciated the details DeSousa provided about the ways police are working to better their interactions with the public. But she wondered what details he wasn't offering, likening his presentation to someone on a job interview who wanted to make a positive impression.

"I wonder if there's things he couldn't say that would be interesting to know," she said.

Another speaker, Lewis Smith, who leads youth violence prevention for the city Health Department, talked to the students about efforts to track non-traditional measures to identify patterns that indicate a child's likelihood of being affected by violence.

Smith said early indicators could include a child that comes from a family that moves around a lot, or a child who frequently misses doctor's appointments.

"If we don't focus on the really young kids, then we can't disrupt the cycle," Smith said.

One program that serves at-risk youth is being eliminated, Smith said. Operation Safe Kids will be discontinued after this year. The program, created in 2002 by then-Mayor Martin O'Malley, provides case management and monitoring to high-risk young people.

The state Department of Juvenile Services is phasing out the program after implementing a similar program in 2009 for juveniles, according to Jay Cleary, a spokesman for the agency.

Cleary said Sunday that both programs targeted the same population with intensive supervision, and the young people served were becoming overwhelmed by the number of visits by various officials. That led to a "far greater likelihood that a youth would miss an appointment and face court-ordered incarceration as a result," Cleary said in an email.

Safe Kids reached about 350 kids with a budget of $1.2 million in the fiscal year that ended in June. Funding was cut in half in the current fiscal year as the program is phased out.

Dr. Leana Wen, Baltimore's health commissioner, said the city also will continue to work to serve the most vulnerable children.

"Our goal is to use evidence and science to find out who are the people most at risk, and to serve them," Wen said. "Trauma and violence cannot be separated from each other."

ywenger@baltsun.com

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