How to stop Baltimore's violence: a coordinated approach

Baltimore is in a state of crisis with respect to public safety. And while some may call this inflammatory rhetoric, the fact of the matter is that our city’s officials, who are responsible for keeping all of us safe, have failed to display any sense of urgency during the first six months of 2017 as the murder rate has skyrocketed, most recently highlighted by the killing of five people in a single night. So, before everyone retreats (yet again) into the numbness, acceptance and inaction that has become all too typical, and Baltimore creeps inexorably toward the highest murder rate in its history, here are some short-term suggestions to stem the blood-letting:

  • Fill the position of director of the Office of Criminal Justice, which has been vacant since the mayor took office, with an experienced person who is empowered to work with the Baltimore Police Department and other public safety agencies to develop strategies to stop the violence, including obtaining necessary resources from the city and grants from the feds and business, non-profit and philanthropic communities. The director should also be tasked with working with the City Solicitor’s Office to select the monitor to oversee police reforms under the Department of Justice consent decree, and to implement its directives.
  • The police department and the State’s Attorney’s Office, along with other law enforcement partners, need to pinpoint the specific locations where the violence is occurring, identify those who are responsible for it and move against them aggressively by designating and assigning teams of prosecutors and detectives to specific targets. Existing collaboration with our federal counterparts should continue to grow, and consideration should also be given to utilizing state resources from the Attorney General’s Office, the Maryland State Police, Parole and Probation, the Department of Juvenile Services and others. This is not about sweeping corners and locking everyone up; instead, it requires a focused approach against the relatively few violent repeat offenders who are causing the violence.
  • Work with the Department of Juvenile Services to identify at-risk and vulnerable juveniles who are most susceptible to being perpetrators and/or victims of violent crime, and provide them with much-needed services in order to stop the frequent scenario in which simply the wrong look or a derogatory word spoken can quickly turn into violence.
  • Hiring new officers continues to be a problem, as the police department is unable to field enough classes of new recruits to keep up with normal attrition rates. The department needs to continue to explore ways to speed up the application process and increase its pool of available applicants, particularly those who live in the city. City Hall can assist by eliminating the red tape that prevents the department from using retired offices to conduct background checks of new applicants.

Long-term, the Mayor’s office needs to develop its legislative agenda now before the next General Assembly session begins, which should include the passage of laws that impose mandatory penalties on those who illegally are carrying firearms in our city. More than 60 percent of those who are found guilty of illegal gun possession receive a suspended sentence; often, these are the same people who go out and commit more violent crime.

These are not unique or original ideas. Many of them have been employed with effective results in the past, but they require implementation through joint, collaborative action by all the public safety agencies, which does not appear to be happening today. Until they are, we will continue to flounder and resort to unsustainable shows of force and other reactionary ideas that are little more than throwing darts at a board. No one agency can do it alone, and so-called community engagement by the police department (along with programs for our youth, job training and economic and educational opportunities), while vitally important to improving the quality of life of our residents and having a long-term positive impact on crime, do not solve our more immediate problem of bodies dropping in the street at an alarming level.

Everyone, no matter who they are or where they live, has the right to feel safe and secure in their homes and communities. It is up to our elected and appointed officials to ensure this inalienable right. In the short-run, a focused, strategic, and aggressive approach against those who are driving violence needs to be adopted, not at the exclusion of the long-term initiatives, but in conjunction with them. If not, there may not be many left who will benefit from these more systematic changes if they are ever ultimately implemented.

Gregg Bernstein was Baltimore's state's attorney from 2010 to 2014 and is a partner at Zuckerman Spaeder LLP; his email is gbernstein@zuckerman.com.

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