Feds pass over Baltimore for help with new crime initiative

During his presidential campaign last year, Donald J. Trump frequently made reference to Baltimore's struggle with violence, describing the city as "out of control" as he vowed to "get rid of the crime" across the nation.

But in one of his administration's first policy announcements on criminal justice — a Justice Department initiative to help local law enforcement — Baltimore failed to make the first cut of cities to take part.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions unveiled the program Tuesday at a conference of law enforcement officials in Bethesda, about 40 miles from Baltimore. The state's largest city has one of the highest homicide rates in the country, and is on pace to exceed 300 killings for the third year in a row.

The federal program, called the National Public Safety Partnership, will work with cities including Buffalo, Cincinnati and Houston, officials said. It is similar to an initiative run by the Obama administration that provided local law enforcement with guidance and training from federal officials.

Baltimore was not selected to take part in the earlier Obama administration program, either.

"Our nation's violent crime rate is rising. In many of our urban areas, this increase is staggering," Sessions said. "This program will help communities suffering from serious violent crime problems to build up their capacity to fight crime."

Why Baltimore — a city frequently held out by Trump an example of a place that needs help tackling crime — wasn't included in the program is not clear. A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment on why the city wasn't selected, or whether the consent decree recently finalized between the department and the city played a role in the decision.

The decree, which the city and the Obama administration rushed to complete before Trump took office in January, already sets up a more robust relationship between the police and the Department of Justice.

Justice Department spokesman Ian D. Prior said cities were chosen for the new program through a process that "considers both quantitative and qualitative measures." Participating cities, he said, "must have levels of violence that far exceed the national average" and must also "demonstrate a commitment to reducing violent crime and be ready to receive the intensive training and technical assistance available."

Baltimore's homicide rate is among the highest in the nation.

A White House spokesman referred questions to the Justice Department.

Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said in a statement that he was "surprised" to learn the city was not selected as "a jurisdiction that would benefit from enhanced federal involvement regarding gun violence, gangs, and drug trafficking."

Davis noted that the Justice Department said more cities could be added and that "I look forward to DOJ's favorable consideration of Baltimore."

Anthony McCarthy, a spokesman for Mayor Catherine Pugh, said in a statement that she is "excited about the working relationships the City of Baltimore enjoys with our federal partners on many levels but is a little surprised that the city wasn't among the cities chosen for this partnership."

McCarthy said there was no formal application process for the program, and that Baltimore would "never decline" assistance from the federal government on crime fighting. Pugh, in fact, publicly called for more help from the Federal Bureau of Investigation to help confront the city's crime just a few weeks ago.

Even as the Trump's administration's legislative agenda has largely stalled on Capitol Hill, his Justice Department is making sweeping changes to crime fighting in places like Baltimore. During his confirmation hearing, Sessions expressed skepticism about consent decrees and the new administration unsuccessfully attempted to delay the Baltimore agreement that was a result of the 2015 death of Freddie Gray.

In April, Sessions announced that the administration was ending a partnership with scientists to set national forensic evidence standards. A month later, Justice rolled back an Obama administration effort to ease sentences on nonviolent drug offenses.

The changes reflect in part a tonal shift Trump tried to convey during the campaign of empathizing more with police, who he often described as besieged by questions about policies and allegations of racism following high-profile encounters in which unarmed African Americans were killed.

"While state, local, and tribal law enforcement and prosecutors are on the front lines of this fight, the federal government also plays a key role," Sessions said. "This Department of Justice will join you with new determination."

There have been 161 homicides in Baltimore this year, up nearly 29 percent from the same point last year. Crime was up 7 percent through June 10. Violent crime was up 16 percent.

The numbers have worsened since Trump called attention to Baltimore in his address to the Republican National Convention in July.

"In our nation's capital, killings have risen by 50 percent. They're up nearly 60 percent in nearby Baltimore," Trump said then, referring to the increase between 2014 and 2015. "In...Chicago, more than 2,000 people have been the victim of shootings this year alone."

Washington and Chicago also were not included in the program announced Tuesday. Chicago did take part in the similar Obama administration program, known as the Violence Reduction Network. The Justice Department said it "evaluated the results" from the Violence Reduction Network and "incorporated the lessons" into the new program.

Officials did not say specifically what those lessons were or how the new program differs except for noting that it will involve "diagnostic and operations teams," that would, respectively, spend 18 months assessing problems and three years working to solve them.

Officials said the diagnostic teams would "assess and evaluate violent crime and gun crime issues" and help craft a violence reduction plan. The operations teams would "partner directly with federal, state, local, and tribal officials to strategically address endemic violent crime issues."

Prior stressed that the initiative is not a grant program, and it does not appear to include any new funding.

Because the explanation of the program is so broad, and because Baltimore already receives technical and training assistance from the Department of Justice, it's not clear what the city will lose by not taking part.

Three Democratic members of the city's congressional delegation contacted by The Baltimore Sun — Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen and Rep. Elijah E. Cummings — issued a joint statement saying they have been in contact with city officials.

"We all agree that Baltimore needs every available resource to help reduce violent crime and the city has demonstrated its commitment to work with any and all partners to reach that goal," the lawmakers said. "We will be requesting a briefing from the Department of Justice on this and other current programs so we can learn what tools can best help Baltimore develop and implement innovative strategies to effectively and efficiently combat violence."

Other cities named as part of the program were Birmingham, Alabama, Indianapolis, Indiana, Memphis, Tennessee, Toledo, Ohio, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Jackson, Tennessee, Kansas City, Missouri, Lansing, Michigan and Springfield, Illinois.

Among the speakers at the Bethesda conference was Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, the former U.S. Attorney in Maryland, who noted his experience with crime in the state.

"Throughout my 27 years with the department, and especially during my time as U.S. Attorney for the District of Maryland, I saw firsthand the effects that violent crime can have on a community," Rosenstein said. "I know how important your work is and how much of a difference you make in the lives of the victims and their families."

Sun reporters Justin Fenton and Kevin Rector contributed to this article.

john.fritze@baltsun.com

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