Sheila Dixon: Failed leadership caused Baltimore's woes

Sheila Dixon: The people of Baltimore are on their knees, and they are crying for change.

Over more than 20 years as a community advocate and public servant, I've learned that anticipating and preventing problems is less costly and more effective than having to respond to them.

The last few months have made that point all too clear, and with this week's change in leadership at the Baltimore Police Department, many residents are asking themselves, "How do we move forward?"

To answer that question, it's important to look back at where we were seven years ago:

In 2008, under Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III, Baltimore saw fewer killings than any other year in two decades. Some of our most troubled neighborhoods saw major decreases in crime. Shootings, gun crimes and robberies had declined and were continuing to drop. There was a newfound confidence in Baltimore; we knew we were on the right track.

These weren't just statistics, they were lives saved. And they weren't an accident. They weren't merely a function of decreased poverty and increased opportunity, though Baltimore experienced that too.

The drop in crime under my administration was the result of a comprehensive and unified strategy to fight crime and strengthen the relationship between the community and the police.

Because I believe the mayor's highest priority is public safety, when I took that office in 2007 I developed a clear, actionable policing strategy right away. Shifting away from the previous mayor's zero-tolerance approach that soured the relationship between the community and law-enforcement, I favored a community policing strategy that would make our city safer and rebuild trust with residents.

Under my leadership, we got more officers out of their cars and onto the street. We created a neighborhood ambassador program to increase community engagement, and we expanded the Safe Streets program to help ex-offenders become part of the solution to strengthen our neighborhoods. We passed a comprehensive package to get illegal guns off the street, making it easier to trace illegal weapons back to the sellers and requiring those convicted of gun offenses to report their address to the police. And we stopped the failed policy of mass incarceration and focused our efforts on targeting the most violent offenders.

Taken in isolation, these policies made sense for the city. But what really made them successful was that I worked closely with the police commissioner, the commanding and rank and file officers to make sure we were all on the same page with our policing strategy.

And it worked.

That success even continued past my administration, until it became clear that the current mayor was not interested in continuing these policies, despite their success.

This week marked a long overdue response to what has been a slow erosion of confidence in our city's leadership.

Over the past four months, our city has felt as though it is teetering on the edge. We saw our deadliest month since 1990. Shootings have more than doubled. Hundreds of mothers and fathers have had to put their children to rest, and fear for the safety of their loved ones who remain.

What is most frustrating is that the unrest — and the distrust behind it — could have been prevented.

The fact of the matter is that the community struggles and soaring crime rates we're facing in Baltimore stem from the years of poor leadership from the current mayor's office.

What's been most painful to watch during this process is the lack of accountability at the top. From the time the riots broke out to the firing of Commissioner Anthony Batts, the mayor has offered us excuses but has failed to explain what exactly her administration will do differently to keep Baltimoreans safe.

The people of Baltimore are on their knees, and they are crying for change. In this time of hardship, we need real leadership, and fast.

It's not about politics; it's about saving lives and strengthening our community. That's why I pray that the mayor will move away from her failed policies and adopt a more unified approach that focuses on community policing, targeting the most violent offenders and getting illegal guns off the street. The future of Baltimore depends on it.

Sheila Dixon is the former mayor of Baltimore and a 2016 candidate for the office. Her email is dixonforbaltimore@gmail.com.

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