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Baltimore mayoral candidates debate as Embry releases crime-fighting plan

Eleven Baltimore City mayoral candidates debate at a forum. (Kevin Richardson, Baltimore Sun)

Eleven candidates for Baltimore mayor squared off in Station North on Wednesday evening, debating how to drive down Baltimore's soaring crime and whether high-end development should be subsidized.

But they all agreed on this: Baltimore needs change. All gave the city low grades on auditing agencies, and all said they'd replace Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano.

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Former mayor Sheila Dixon pledged to reduce crime and extend school into the evening. State Sen. Catherine E. Pugh promised to make the streetlights work again. City Councilman Carl Stokes said he'd advocate for Baltimore's ignored communities.

"While we have a Circulator for many parts of the city," we don't have one in East and West Baltimore, Stokes said. "They don't have a free freaking bus."

The forum was hosted by Impact Hub, a shared workspace, community center, and innovation lab that opened last month in the historic Centre Theater in Station North.

Participants included Dixon, Pugh, Stokes, Councilman Nick J. Mosby, lawyer Elizabeth Embry and businessman David L. Warnock. Others participating included Democrats Calvin Young, Joshua S. Harris, Patrick Gutierrez, Gersham Cupid and Cindy Walsh.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is not seeking re-election.

Recent polls have showed Dixon leading the field, followed by Pugh and Stokes. The three candidates ran against each other in 2003 in a race for City Council president won by Dixon.

Warnock, Pugh and Embry have the most campaign money in their accounts.

Harris said the candidates leading in the polls with the biggest campaign accounts are part of the problem in Baltimore.

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"More than half of the candidates here are being financed by the exact same corporate interests that perpetuated the racial disparaties and the situation that Baltimore is in today," Harris said.

Several of the veteran officials, however, cast themselves as agents of change.

"I will give you something different," Stokes promised. "I called for audits; we finally got audits. I said no more TIFs [tax increment financing subsidies] unless we give money back to the community; and I just held up a TIF until we gave $4 million to the community around it."

Embry releases anti-crime plan

The forum took place hours after Embry released a 17-page plan that outlines how she would reduce crime if elected. Her plan follows the release of Dixon's crime-fighting strategy and Mosby's wide-ranging 15-point plan to improve Baltimore.

Embry, chief of the criminal division of the Maryland office of the attorney general, says she would use a "district-by-district strategy" to target gangs, revitalize the anti-gun Ceasefire program, and expand the Safe Streets program, in which ex-offenders intervene in disputes.

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She would mandate body cameras for police, recruit more local officers, and expand incentives for officers to get higher education. And she pledges to "end the War on Drugs," by stopping arrests for simple marijuana possession and expanding drug treatment.

"It's about being tough on violent crime and gun crime," Embry said. "It's not about being tough on people who are the victims of addiction or poverty."

Baltimore is reeling from one of its worst years for violent crime. In 2015, there were more than 900 shootings and 344 homicides.

Embry, a former deputy in the city state's attorney's office, says her background in law enforcement makes her stand out from the other candidates running for mayor.

"Things right now are sadly out of control," Embry said. "I don't think anyone has the experience, credibility and detail comparable to my experience and my plan."

Embry said she blamed 2015's record murder rate on "failures in leadership," among other factors. But she said she has been impressed with new police commissioner Kevin Davis.

"He is doing a lot of things right," she said. "I hope he will carry through on his promises and priorities."

Daniel W. Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy & Research, said he was "very impressed with Ms. Embry's plans."

"They are consistent with the best available research and her plans include many specific and bold reforms that are overdue," he said. "I particularly like the focus on prevention with respect to getting guns off the street, focused deterrence through Ceasefire, investment in Safe Streets, and drug treatment. Her plan also recognizes that juveniles are different from adults and should be treated differently."

Former Baltimore Police Commissioner Leonard Hamm, now chief of the Coppin State University police, also praised the plan.

"I thought it was bold. I thought it was far-reaching. I think it's doable," Hamm said. "That plan really understands what crime is about in this city. Crime is nothing more than a symptom of health issues, housing issues, education issues, economic issues and transportation issues. If you don't deal with those, you're going to have crime."

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