Year-old Baltimore 'war room' takes 566 'trigger pullers' off the street

'War room' strategy has targeted hundreds of repeat offenders responsible for Baltimore violence

This week marks one year since Baltimore police, overwhelmed by a surge in violence not seen in two decades, established a 24-7 “war room” on crime, a renewed effort to bring police, prosecutors and federal law enforcement agencies together to target violent repeat offenders and build cases against them.

Is the secretive war room still in place? Is it having any effect?

I gave the numbers in my Wednesday column: 150 homicides across the city as of July 12. At this point last year, there were 167 homicides, and Police Commissioner Kevin Davis rolled out the war room strategy during a particularly bloody weekend (25 shootings, 11 homicides) in the 2015 surge of gunfire.

"We're in the midst of a violent-crime crisis and we can't do business as usual,” Davis said. “The war room is not business as usual, and it's going to be effective for the city."

Has it been?

Here’s what I got from Lt. Jarron Jackson, a spokesman for the police department, when I inquired about it on Tuesday:

“The war room has shown to be very effective. Our ability to identify violent crime connections throughout the city has exceeded expectations. The various units and task force groups operating under the umbrella of the war room have been able to identify a multitude of crime drivers within our city. These targets are currently under investigation.”

The war room’s “trigger-puller” list, suspects police believe to be responsible for most shootings in the city, many of them retaliatory, grew significantly since it was first reported last summer at 238.

Jackson: “One of the investigative platforms we utilize, the trigger pullers list, continues to be an analytical guide into those members of our community who are intent on doing harm. Since the war room was initiated on July 14, 2015, the dedicated units within the war room have subtracted 566 trigger pullers."

That means 566 suspects have been taken off the street -- and off the "trigger puller" list -- by arrest or gunfire; some were themselves victims of homicide.

Of those who were arrested and made bail, two were shot but survived their wounds only to be shot a second time fatally. In all, 11 of those who were on the warm room "trigger-puller list" and arrested in the last year have been wounded by gunfire. Seven were killed outright, according to Davis.

In addition, more than 50 suspects who are on the "trigger-puller list," but who avoided arrest during the last year, were shot -- 32 fatally and 20 non-fatally, according to Davis, providing further evidence of the mortal peril faced by guys who remain in Baltimore's gangs and street life.

A lot of the arrests have been for illegal guns. I reported on an increase in such arrests earlier this year. The latest figures: 798 arrests for illegal possession of firearms in 2016 so far. That’s up by 280 over the same period last year. Recent example: On July 5, detectives from the Northeast District executed a search warrant at a house in the 1600 block of Carswell Street. They recovered a loaded semi-automatic handgun and arrested a 56-year-old felon prohibited from possessing a firearm.

This is the kind of strategy I referenced in today’s column -- a focus on violent offenders who do not heed the warnings of their parole or probation agents to stay away from guns and from old friends who suck them back into criminality.

While the law enforcement collaboration has resulted in a significant number of gun arrests, there are still about 300 names on the “war board targets” list.

So, can citizens count on this work to continue? Is the war room still in place? Are the feds still doing their part?

"The collaboration between our federal partners has never been stronger," says Jackson, the police spokesman.

Rod Rosenstein, the U.S. Attorney for Maryland, says the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Federal Bureau of Investigation all have agents working on major investigations of gangs targeted by the war room collaboration.  “I met just last week,” Rosenstein says, “with the police commissioner and the special agents in charge of the most relevant federal agencies -- ATF, DEA and FBI, which investigate violent criminals and gangs -- and the U.S. Marshals Service, which locates felons.”

The DEA alone has about 35 agents assigned to the city crime problem, according to Todd Edwards, the agency’s regional spokesman. Those agents are working in three teams -- one assigned to gangs, another to major crimes, another to violent crimes. “The majority of our investigations in Baltimore are worked with the cooperation of Baltimore Police Department and other local, state, and federal agencies,” Edwards says.

The ATF's Baltimore field office also has three groups working with Baltimore police on violent offenders, career criminals, gun traffickers and gangs, according to Dave Cheplak, the bureau’s regional spokesman. “Our top priority is to address and investigate violent crime,” he says.

The numbers of suspects arrested and handguns confiscated are impressive, even in the face of what seems like endless shootings and homicides. 

But the real test will come when these “trigger pullers” get to court: Will prosecutors working for Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby make the cases against them stick? And will judges give those convicted of new crimes some serious time off the streets and in our prisons? We’ll have to check back on that.

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