Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake unveiled Operation Ceasefire in 2014, promising that the renowned anti-gun violence strategy that worked in other cities would "bring dramatic results" in lowering crime in Baltimore.
But a year later, Baltimore is reeling from one of the deadliest months in its history. And the Ceasefire program is being jump-started after its director resigned in protest amid concerns that city officials failed to provide promised resources — from job training to relocation — for offenders who were looking to get out of the drug trade.
Internal memos obtained by The Baltimore Sun show that Ceasefire manager LeVar Michael, who resigned in late March, complained to top city officials that "we lack the resources which other cities implementing this model currently have from monetary funding to staffing." He also criticized the Police Department, calling it a "major stumbling block," and said top commanders did not understand the program.
Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, calls Baltimore's Ceasefire operation "bare bones."
"It seems to me that it is being done on the cheap and being done in a way that is not even resembling the program model," said Webster, who has monitored Ceasefire. "Nothing looks or smells right as it relates to this program, which is really a shame because there is a body of research that this model more often than not does drive down serious violent crime."
Mayoral spokesman Kevin Harris said the program met with initial success after it was implemented last June. Homicides in the Western District — where Ceasefire focused — dropped from 43 to 21, compared with the previous year. The city also touted major busts connected with the program, including the September arrest of a drug dealer who refused to reform, which included the seizure of nearly $4 million in drugs and cash.
Harris said the Ceasefire director's job should be to coordinate existing city resources while recruiting nonprofits and private entities to lend support.
"Before we continue to spend more money on law enforcement, let's take a step back and ask, 'Are we being as efficient and organized as we can be to actually address these problems?' Just throwing money at it without asking questions has not worked," Harris said.
On Tuesday, the city hired Leon Henry to lead Ceasefire, and he's confident that the program can work in Baltimore.
In his first public interview about the program, Henry declined to talk about Michael's concerns. But he believes he can recruit private groups to join the city effort.
"I can't go in the past," said Henry, the former director of outreach with the mentoring group Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Chesapeake. "All I can talk about is where we're headed today. Today we have a crisis in Baltimore City, and my job is to make sure we get through this."
'A daunting task'
Ceasefire — the brainchild of criminologist David M. Kennedy — centers on a strategy of shutting down drug markets and reducing shootings through face-to-face sessions, or "call-ins," in which police, prosecutors, clergy and community members confront those believed to be responsible for violence. Suspects are warned that authorities will pursue them if shootings continue and are offered a way to turn away from violent crime through job programs, mentoring and other opportunities.
In May 2014, as Baltimore officials were preparing to implement the program, Michael was already expressing concerns that those opportunities were not being made available to ex-offenders.
"While we all know the majority of this initiative is heavily law enforcement, there are other elements which are critical to this model as well," Michael wrote in a memo, outlining social services programs such as emergency housing. "In short, if we as a city intend to make this initiative a success, we must be willing to properly invest in the initiative."
Reached for comment, Michael declined to address the memos. But he said he informed the city in December that he would leave his position in the spring if there was no approved budget.
"I decided to pursue a new opportunity after it became apparent that my public safety priorities [regarding Ceasefire] did not align with that of the current administration," he said.
Some familiar with the program agreed with Michael's assessment that resources have not been robust enough in Baltimore.
Funding must be set aside for the housing, job training and other social services that are promised to gang members who participate, said Clayton Guyton, director of the Rose Street Community Center in East Baltimore. It is also crucial to provide support services such as helping them clear outstanding warrants, get a driver's license and obtain child care, said Kevin McCamant, a clinical psychologist who works with the community center.
When city officials talked about expanding the program to the east side, Guyton's staff "found out there was no money allocated for the other resources."
He added, "We only saw the punitive side coming from the police. We couldn't go along with that. ... If [Michael] had the resources, I think he could have fulfilled the promises that he made to these guys. He wasn't able to do that."
Officials in other cities also have struggled to line up resources for the offenders they are targeting.
"Somewhere in the process you need funding, especially with the city services. That's one of the struggles with the strategy," said Philadelphia Police Deputy Commissioner Kevin Bethel, who heads patrol operations. "If you don't do these other interventions, these guys aren't going to be interested."
Philadelphia aims its program, known as Focused Deterrence, at South Philadelphia, where gangs are most clearly defined by history and geography, such as the 27 Gang on 27th Street. Bethel said the strategy appears to be effective through such a targeted approach.
"Like anything, it goes through peaks and valleys," he said. "The struggle is keeping the energy."
Having Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey and District Attorney R. Seth Williams directly involved in initial calls-ins with gang members, community leaders, outreach workers and others has been instrumental, he said.
The biggest challenge is getting gang members to participate and take advantage of services, Bethel said. "It's a daunting task to move someone away from a life of crime and into legitimacy."
Questions of resources
Kennedy first brought Ceasefire to Baltimore in the late 1990s under Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. But the next mayor, Martin O'Malley, was not enthusiastic about the strategy.
Rawlings-Blake personally recruited Kennedy to return in 2013 during a visit to the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, where he is director of the National Network for Safe Communities, which helps cities reduce violence while minimizing arrests. His Ceasefire program has seen success in more than 60 cities, including Boston.
Baltimore officials have allocated $415,000 for the program, all of it earmarked for Kennedy's National Network for Safe Communities in New York. Michael's $75,000 salary was paid from other funds.
Kennedy acknowledges that cities can adopt his strategy without paying him, noting that it is not protected by copyright. But he said his group offers assistance to cities as they execute the strategy.
The National Network for Safe Communities' work in Baltimore has included conducting a "problem analysis," as well as working with law enforcement to identify targeted groups and sort through intelligence to determine "their beefs, their vendettas."
"We look at several years' worth of homicides and nonfatal shootings, and unpack the detailed dynamics on the ground," Kennedy said.
Kennedy noted the drop in Western District homicides over the first half-year of the program and said there was an 80 percent reduction in "group member involved" homicides.
Pumping a lot of funding into the program at first is unnecessary, he said.
Kennedy said Michael wanted to "build something like a parallel social services structure, but there was no real need for that until and unless it was clear that the demand from the streets was outstripping existing, available resources — which was not at all evident."
Michael's resignation was one of four key staff departures in the Mayor's Office on Criminal Justice in recent weeks, including the office's director, Angela Johnese.
Rawlings-Blake believes the agency has a "huge role to play in making the city safer."
Past directors of the agency, she said, were "clearly successes," and her "goal is to look for ways to build off that model of success. I'm looking for new initiatives out of the Mayor's Office on Criminal Justice that dig deeper into these communities where we have these issues and looks for innovative solutions."
If she determines that more resources need to be provided to Ceasefire, she will provide them, she added.
"I know that it has been successful in other cities to address group violence," the mayor said. "And my commitment to the success of Ceasefire includes not just that we have the implementation but that we make sure it has the resources to make it successful."
New Orleans could provide a model for financing such a program.
That city's government allocated two employees to the Ceasefire program out of the mayor's office, according to the 2015 annual operating budget. It budgeted $348,600 last year and in 2015, a significant increase over the previous two years, according to budget documents.
After launching the program in 2013, Mayor Mitchell J. Landrieu expanded it to include the Ceasefire Hospital Crisis Intervention Team. The W.K. Kellogg Foundation awarded a $343,000 grant that year to the team, which sends staff members to visit gunshot victims in hospitals. They work with the victims' families and friends in an effort to stop the cycle of violence.
Baltimore's program has no similar foundation funding, but the new director said it is an area he is targeting. Several area foundations have raised significant amounts for funds related to the recent unrest — money that Ceasefire potentially could tap into.
For example, the Open Society Institute–Baltimore has raised $740,000 for its Baltimore Justice Fund and United Way of Central Maryland has raised $521,398 for its Maryland Unites Fund. And the Baltimore Community Foundation has raised $351,000 for the Fund for Rebuilding Baltimore.
Success amid turmoil?
Beyond the issue of resources, some in the community question whether Ceasefire can be effective, especially as the city convulses with violence in the wake of Freddie Gray's death.
Daphne Alston of the nonprofit Mothers of Murdered Sons, has participated in Ceasefire call-ins, speaking to offenders about the pain that violence inflicts on families. But the last call-in she attended in March had a different atmosphere, she said: "They booed [police] so bad, it was really terrible."
Alston agrees that existing residents and resources are the answer to fixing the community.
"It's got to be the community and networks on the ground that will get us through that," she said. Some money has been wasted on ineffective programs, she added.
Webster, the Hopkins researcher, said that when he analyzed Ceasefire, he was alarmed that police made hundreds of arrests — 324 over six months — associated with the program.
Mass arrests are one of the main reasons police and offenders have such a hard time finding common ground, he said.
But that does not align with the Ceasefire model, Webster said. "That's the approach the Baltimore Police Department has taken for decades now, and it frankly hasn't worked all that well."
Webster also questioned statistics that Kennedy and city officials tout from 2014.
Homicides dropped by 52 percent in the Western District for the nearly six-month period that followed Ceasefire's implementation, compared with the same period in 2013. But the district experienced a similar reduction in the nearly six-month period before Ceasefire started, he said.
Webster said that "2013 was a really bad year in the city generally and West Baltimore in particular." The declines in homicides last year, he said, followed that spike.
The Safe and Sound Campaign, a nonprofit, worked with Ceasefire in the 1990s iteration and once again is working with the program. It has lent two outreach workers who are ex-offenders to speak at call-ins and offer advice to participants.
"My hope is that the mayor will stay with the [Ceasefire] strategy that I am convinced will result in a fairer criminal justice system and far, far safer communities," said Safe and Sound's executive director, Hathaway Ferebee, who worked with Kennedy here in the 1990s.
Still, Kate E. Wolfson, director of Safe and Sound's Public Safety Compact, has questions about Ceasefire's direction. The departures of Michael, and now Johnese, who became her contact for the program, have left things in flux, she said.
"There are a lot of questions that need to be answered about the direction the program is going in," she said. "We're worried. Is the city making good on the promise to these guys?"
Wolfson's outreach workers attended two call-ins, one in the Western District and another in the Eastern. "From the Eastern call-in, we only were given contact information for people who signed up, and less than 10 people signed up," she said. "At least two of them said, 'Yes, we want to help.'"
The last call-in was canceled, and she's unaware of another being scheduled.
Henry, Baltimore's new Ceasefire director, is committed to addressing the recent spike in homicides.
"I'm from here. So I take the safety of the city personally," he said. "This is where my family lives. This is where my children live. I have a lot of pride in my city."
Still, Kennedy cautioned that it might be difficult to achieve any success with Ceasefire while the city is in turmoil.
"We're clearly in an extraordinarily difficult period for the city, which, at least for a while, may be a struggle to get anything to work," he said. "With any luck and good fortune at all, we'll come out the other side of that."