An 'update' on Baltimore violence prevention strategies: They're not working

On its glossy, full-color cover, Mayor Catherine Pugh’s long awaited crime plan announces that it is not, in fact, a plan. Rather, it is titled a “Violence Reduction Update” Ms. Pugh made clear in releasing it on Wednesday that she has had a plan all along. This document, she said, represents a compilation of ideas she brought with her to office nine months ago and which she developed during last year’s campaign, with some enhancements and refinements. Those include some new and interesting ideas — free community college for city public high school graduates, for example — and generally reflect Ms. Pugh’s view that violence needs to be addressed holistically and is not just a question for the police.

But does the document let on at any point that Baltimore’s per capita homicide rate is now the highest it has ever been in history? Does it convey the rise in non-fatal shootings, robberies and assaults? Does it reflect a community so desperate for peace and safety that thousands marched and prayed last weekend for 72 hours without a killing?

Not at all.

The letter from Police Commissioner Kevin Davis on page 2 offers up the bland assertion, “none of us are satisfied with the level of violence we are experiencing” — who is ever, exactly? — and page 5 displays a chart of “crime by the numbers” over the last two and a half years with the warning that the data for the first seven months of 2017 “does not represent statistics submitted to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report. Therefore, comparisons should not be made.” But if we were to cut through that caution tape, we would see that Baltimore is on pace for about 350 murders this year. That would be worse than last year and worse even than Baltimore’s shell-shocked 2015 when the death of Freddie Gray marked the beginning of our current spike in violence. Robbery, aggravated assault and burglary are up, too.

Ms. Pugh says in her “update” that “teams are in place to drive the reduction of violent crimes … and to execute innovative strategies to build on our progress.” What progress?

The document includes few measurable goals or pledges of accountability. On the key question of police staffing, for example, it highlights a 70 percent increase in recruitment over last year and 170 prospective officers in training. That’s good. But are we actually putting more people on the force now than are leaving? What are our goals for staffing levels in the department? Even if we filled all vacancies, would the authorized strength of the force — down substantially from five years ago — be adequate? The document announces the intention of performing “a staffing analysis to identify redundancies and gaps in critical police functions.” Should that not have been the starting point for this exercise — and one conducted nine months ago and not contingent on funding available “as a result of the mayor’s request to Michael Bloomberg”? The mayor is promising to “enhance funding for Safe Streets” — a violence prevention program of proven effectiveness. How much? From what pot of money? To how many sites?

To be fair, the report does reflect some legitimate new efforts that are underway, for example Commissioner Davis’ decision to resurrect a modified version of the special operations units that have been effective in driving down violence in the past and the beginnings of a renewed effort at close coordination with state parole and probation officers to monitor dangerous, repeat offenders. Ms. Pugh says her lobbying for enhanced state funding for new technology and other initiatives has been successful, though the governor’s office has not yet provided specifics on its commitments. And this report is accompanied by the hiring — finally — of a new director for the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, a crucial position to drive policing strategies and coordinate efforts across city agencies. The fact that the new director, Drew Vetter, currently serves as Commissioner Davis’ chief of staff means he comes to the job with an understanding of the context and the key players. If he can demonstrate the kind of independence and strategic thinking others have displayed in his new job, he can provide a crucial missing piece in Baltimore’s anti-crime efforts.

Perhaps his first step should be to work with the newly hired CitiStat director, Kendra Parlock, to develop the measurable goals this report lacks and enlist the mayor to stake her career on them. What no one is saying here is what we can and should achieve in terms of the reduction of violent crime. We need to know what this mayor and police commissioner believe they can achieve, and they need to be held accountable for doing it.

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