Mosby derailed program to analyze Baltimore homicides

Mosby derailed a commission to review homicides in Baltimore

Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby recently derailed an initiative to bring together city leaders, law enforcement commanders, academics, public health officials and others to identify real-time homicide trends and develop targeted responses — the latest crime-fighting program to falter amid a dramatic spike in violence.

After months of promising unprecedented transparency and collaboration with law enforcement partners, Mosby said she didn't want to share information that others in the fledgling Baltimore Homicide Review Commission considered critical to success. She said providing information on ongoing cases could compromise investigations or jeopardize the safety of victims and witnesses.

Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research and the academic chosen to lead the project, said Mosby's position "really defeated the purpose and it completely took the air out of the whole process, and I notified the police commissioner and mayor's office and health commissioner that it just wasn't going to work. ... It was incredibly frustrating."

The Homicide Review Commission, which cost the city nearly $200,000 to get off the ground last year, is based on a model in Milwaukee, where officials say it has helped drive down crime.

It's a method of digging deeper into "the actual factors that lead to homicides, how much of this is drugs, how much of this is gang conflict, gang-to-gang conflict, how much is generated by substance abuse," said Webster, who was asked by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to lead the Baltimore commission.

Other anti-crime programs have also encountered problems this year. As the city has fought to rebound from the rioting and looting following the death of Freddie Gray in April, make sense of a spike in homicides and deal with a shake-up among law enforcement leaders, a number of initiatives have lost momentum.

The director of the Ceasefire program, which takes aim at violent offenders, resigned in late March after complaining that city officials failed to provide promised resources. By mid-year, a number of key officials had left the Mayor's Office on Criminal Justice. One of the Safe Streets programs was suspended in July after drugs and guns were found inside its offices and two of its "violence interrupters" were arrested. And the CitiStat program, which includes crime data collection, slowed.

Meanwhile, the top ranks of the Police Department were shaken up in early July, when the mayor fired Commissioner Anthony Batts. That left the interim commissioner, Kevin Davis, with the arduous task of regaining the trust of city residents as well as a police officers' union that says it felt betrayed by commanders amid the unrest following Gray's death.

On Thursday, Gov Larry Hogan announced that he is closing the state-run Baltimore City Detention Center, adding another level of uncertainty to law enforcement efforts.

Amid those changes, killings have skyrocketed. Since 1970, the city has only recorded 40 homicides in a month five times. This year was the first in which it did so twice — in May and July — and last month's tally was the highest in 45 years.

Last month, Rawlings-Blake, Davis and Mosby announced they had convened a "War Room" — based on some of the same tenets of intelligence-sharing as the homicide commission — to address the surge in crime. They promised unprecedented collaboration among local, state and federal law enforcement partners.

Since then, they say more arrests have been made and more guns have been taken off the streets, but they haven't provided many details about their strategy. Howard Libit, a spokesman for Rawlings-Blake, said she is well aware of the challenges Baltimore faces in its crime fight, but is addressing them.

She is close to naming new appointees to her criminal justice office, hopes to restore the closed Safe Streets office to the "responsible and effective" crime-fighting tool it has been in the past, and has a "great deal of confidence" in Davis, Libit said.

"It's clear that the unrest was a game changer for the city and crime in the city," Libit said. "What's happened in the months since the unrest has been a very challenging period of violence in Baltimore, and adjustments are being made."

Gray, 25, suffered a fatal spinal cord injury while in police custody. His death sparked widespread protests against police brutality and laid bare long-simmering tensions between the Police Department and community residents. The Police Department — currently under a sweeping civil rights investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice — has pledged a renewed focus on community-oriented policing.

Still, the unraveling of plans for the homicide commission shows a tension among Baltimore leaders that doesn't bode well for the city's efforts at ground level, said Samuel Walker, professor emeritus of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Walker, an expert on police accountability and federal reviews of local departments, said that to effectively fight crime, cities must focus on three things: picking a strategy, making sure that strategy has been proven elsewhere, and implementing it in a transparent way.

The city's "War Room," Walker said, is "completely vague" and doesn't meet those standards.

"OK, so they have this room," he said. "What are they doing? What is their strategy? And how do each of the players fit into that strategy?"

What's more, if there is a lack of continuity in the city's crime-fighting focus, "and if political factors or bureaucratic rivalries are going to interrupt a program that is getting started, then you've negated its potential effectiveness."

Webster, a researcher of city crime trends, said he jumped at the mayor's offer to lead the homicide commission.

Gregg Bernstein, Mosby's predecessor, also became a supporter.

Bernstein noted last week that the commission was in its infancy when he was in office. But he spoke to Milwaukee County District Attorney John T. Chisholm about its successes and sent two assistant state's attorneys to that city to learn more about the program because it sounded like a promising idea — particularly for Baltimore.

"Here in Baltimore, where you have shootings and homicides that are in very concentrated areas in the city, and therefore have often the same people or same groups involved in it, any analysis of trends in why shootings and homicides are occurring can be helpful in stopping that," Bernstein said. "So much of the violence we see is retaliatory, so if you can bring in different disciplines to look at that, that's a good thing."

Bernstein said he wasn't concerned about information in pending cases being leaked, because there "are work-arounds, and you can limit it in a way that information is not being disclosed. ... It's at least worth making that effort."

Mosby, who defeated Bernstein in the 2014 Democratic primary and was elected the city's top prosecutor, was of a different mind.

Webster said Mosby's office began raising concerns about the commission early this year — taking most of the other stakeholders by surprise. "It was very frustrating for me, for my team. It was frustrating for the Health Department. It was frustrating for the mayor's office," he said.

As the commission sought to build momentum, Mosby's office said it would only share information from closed cases.

"That was taking us back to cases 2 1/2 or 3 years old or more," Webster said.

Asked last week about the policy shift, Mosby released a statement saying her office "cannot be naive to the fact that Baltimore City is not Milwaukee."

She added in the statement, "My office will not ever compromise open and pending investigations or more importantly disclose information that could put the safety of victims' and witnesses' lives in jeopardy, especially when the metrics they are looking for can easily be obtained through closed cases. We have agreed to be a part of the process and participate in the review of closed homicide cases."

Webster said he and other commission partners tried to put Mosby's office in touch with Chisholm and others in Milwaukee who might convince her that those concerns were unfounded, but got nowhere.

Chisholm said Milwaukee, like Baltimore and many other cities, is experiencing a spike in homicides — there have been more killings in Milwaukee so far this year than in all of 2014 — and the commission is "not a panacea." But, he said, the commission has played a proven role in reducing crime in past years, and the potential problems raised by Mosby have not been an issue since Milwaukee's program began in 2005.

"I've never had a situation where sensitive case information has been disclosed, and certainly not any victim information being disclosed that would compromise their security," he said.

Mallory O'Brien, director of the Milwaukee Homicide Review Commission, said sensitive material is only shared with law enforcement officials used to handling such information. Community groups and other stakeholders are only brought into the fold later, when personal information from specific cases can no longer be identified. "We have not had an issue," O'Brien said.

Chisholm also said that restricting the program to reviewing adjudicated cases would limit its value.

"This isn't designed to be a purely academic study. This is sort of applied academics," he said. "You really want to be able to spot trends as they're occurring and respond to them."

Asked about Mosby's concerns, Libit said the mayor "doesn't want to do anything to jeopardize the opportunity for justice for homicide victims or any other crime in the city," and will work to "rethink how this funding can be used and how this commission can still be effective" with the partners still interested in moving forward.

"We're all partners trying to achieve the same goal, which is to reduce violent crime and reduce homicides in our city, and if one of our partners had concerns that the process that we were going to undertake would jeopardize or potentially compromise their efforts as part of the team, then we are going to accept that and try to find another way to achieve the same ends," Libit said.

Libit also said he is "sure there's an urgency to what is happening in the War Room that has broken down whatever barriers occurred with the commission."

A police spokesman referred all questions about the commission to Mosby's office. Rochelle Ritchie, a spokeswoman for Mosby, did not provide an answer when asked Friday whether the state's attorney's office is sharing with War Room participants information it has withheld from the commission.

Webster said he is now trying to reshape the program utilizing older cases, but is far less enthusiastic about its potential.

Bernstein, a partner at Zuckerman Spaeder LLP, said fighting crime is Baltimore is not easy no matter the approach. Success, he said, depends on programs like Ceasefire and Safe Streets, data mining initiatives like CitiStat and innovative ways to learn as much as possible about what's happening on the city's streets.

"These things are all, I think, proven tools to fight crime and reduce the level of crime in our city," Bernstein said. "To the extent that those programs, strategies can continue to be utilized, I think you have the opportunity to have an impact on the violence we're seeing in the city — but you have to work collaboratively."

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