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Baltimore police, partners create around-the-clock 'war room' to address crime surge

Baltimore police, partners create “war room,” identify targets.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, law enforcement officials and prosecutors have created an around-the-clock "war room" to address the spike in violent crime that has racked Baltimore since the death of Freddie Gray, they said Sunday.

Officials have identified several criminal groups as top targets of the effort.

"We are pushing for an all-hands-on-deck approach to this current surge in violence," Rawlings-Blake told reporters at a news conference. "We know that crime is not static. Neither can we be. It is important for us to work together and recommit ourselves to that collaboration every single day in order for us to get on top of this crime spike."

Violence has spiked since Gray, 25, died in police custody in April, and has showed no sign of abating. May saw 42 homicides, the deadliest month in Baltimore in 25 years. From Friday through Sunday, more than 20 people were shot. Seven died, and others were in critical condition.

Interim Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis, appointed by Rawlings-Blake last week after she dismissed Anthony W. Batts, said the war room — an operations center in which all of the partner agencies are to work together — will "ensure there are no gaps in our intelligence sharing, no gaps in our operational capacities, and no gaps in our overall commitment to identify the small number of folks who are harming our communities."

Davis said officials have identified "four different groups of bad guys who are responsible for a disproportionate amount of violence in Baltimore City, and we're going to work around the clock until we get to the point of probable cause to start taking those folks off the streets.

"The citizens of this city deserve nothing less."

The announcement caught some city leaders by surprise. They included City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young and Councilmen Warren Branch and Brandon Scott, who serve as chair and vice chair of the council's public safety committee.

Branch said he would "like to hear some more" about the collaboration.

"We've got to get the house in order right away, so let's hope everyone can get on the same page and support, as the mayor would call it, One Baltimore," he said.

"It think it has been happening before but to have them actually physically in the same room at the same time … I think that's a great thing," Scott said.

Lester Davis, a spokesman for Young, said Young did not know about the effort, but believes that "clearly an all-hands-on-deck approach is more than needed."

"The level of violence being committed must be addressed comprehensively," Davis said in a statement. "The Council President will reach out to the mayor, interim commissioner, and state's attorney for specific details about how this campaign will work."

The announcement of the command center came less than a week after police said they would begin manning front desks at police stations 24 hours a day. That move came after a man said he was robbed of his bicycle one night last month but found a nearby station closed when he went to report the crime.

Officials said the new command center will be distinct from the Police Department's existing watch center, a central location in which city surveillance footage, 911 calls and images from police helicopters come in on a 24-hour basis. That center had been used less frequently in past years, until Batts identified it as an underused asset.

Howard Libit, a spokesman for Rawlings-Blake, said officials would not provide the physical location of the new war room. Few details for how the new collaboration will operate were provided, including how it will function differently than the existing Watch Center.

In addition to Rawlings-Blake's administration and the Baltimore Police Department, participants include the offices of Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby and Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein; the FBI; the DEA; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; and the U.S. Marshals Service.

Mosby said the agencies involved have a "proven track record" of getting results in the city's crime fight when they work together.

"We intend to share data. We intend to co-locate to address the immediate needs of violence in our city," Mosby said. "We have identified individuals that we are going to go after, and we have shown in the past that when we work together collaboratively, we will get these individuals off our streets. It's proven."

Officials were asked whether "war room" could be the wrong language to use at a time of increased tension between the Police Department and the broader community.

Gray's death sparked days of protests and demonstrations against police brutality; on the day he was buried, the city erupted in riots, arson and looting.

Davis said "war room" might not be the "best terminology," but the effort is geared in the right direction — with the well-being of the community in mind.

Mosby did not shy away from "war room."

"We are essentially declaring war on those individuals with no code of ethics killing women and killing children," Mosby said. "We are going to war, and we're going to do it collaboratively."

Davis said the command center will be staffed by police commanders around the clock and will be "in place as long as it needs to be in place and until we start identifying and arresting those folks that are harming this city."

The Police Department spends more than $30 million per year on overtime.

Asked what the new effort will cost and where the funding will come from, Rawlings-Blake said the partner agencies expect to work in a "more efficient and effective way" using existing resources.

"This is putting the players who are already in the fight together in the same place to work together, so I don't anticipate having a larger price tag," she said. "It's just about working together differently and more effectively."

Officials did not say how many personnel from each agency will be involved in the effort. They also did not say how many people are affiliated with the criminal groups they have targeted.

Davis said the targets include gangs and violent repeat offenders operating in neighborhoods across the city.

"They all touch each other at certain points. The folks in those four groups have relationships with each other," Davis said. "They are caught up in more than one investigation that typically makes its way outside of the BPD, so that's why we want to all stick together and make sure we are sharing information and intelligence."

A police spokesman said the idea for the war room approach came from Davis. He said more details will be available Monday.

Jeffrey Ian Ross, a criminologist at the University of Baltimore, said the "war room" sounds new, but targeting the worst offenders is similar to the approach favored by David Kennedy, who developed the concept behind Operation Ceasefire, a program that targets violent repeat offenders.

"What we need is something that is coordinated and that's not just for violent crime, that's for all crime in Baltimore, and I have not seen that," said Ross. He has worked at the University of Baltimore since 1998.

Ross said calling it a "war room" could be simple public relations, to show residents that officials are responding.

"I'm surprised that this kind of strategy was not in place already," he said. "Maybe it's not that new. … They're just kind of rebranding it, but I just don't know."

In a city where drugs drive much of the violence, it can be difficult for police to make a dent, Ross said.

"If you remove a gang from control of the area, removing them by locking them up," he said, "other people come in and fill their place."

krector@baltsun.com

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Read more on recent attempts to fight Baltimore violence

11:30 a.m. update: This story now includes the updated number of homicides and shootings for the weekend, as reported by Baltimore Police on Monday.

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