Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. and Police Chief Melissa Hyatt unveiled a new approach Wednesday to reduce violent crime after a record year for homicides.
Olszewski has pushed public safety among his priorities for the Maryland General Assembly’s 2020 legislative session. On Wednesday, he joined Hyatt to release a plan focusing on “five key priority areas” for combating crime.
“Keeping our communities safe is among the most important responsibilities of government,” Olszewski said. “Any increase in violent crime is unacceptable.”
The 50 homicides in the county last year surpassed the previous high of 43 set in 1992, according to FBI data tracking violent crime since 1985. The 2019 homicides also are an 85% increase over the prior year, when 27 people were killed in the county, according to police data.
Many of the strategies Olszewski and Hyatt shared were initiatives he previously described to The Baltimore Sun. For instance, the county will establish a “Real Time Crime Center.” The physical center will use real-time data and technology to decide how to deploy resources at the precincts experiencing “the greatest amount of gun violence,” such as eastern Baltimore County’s Dundalk and Essex precincts and the Wilkins and Woodlawn precincts on the county’s west side.
Hyatt said officials haven’t reached “a hard deadline” for when the center would open. However, she said, they already have a blueprint for the concept. The center would employ experienced civilian crime analysts alongside police officers. They’re looking at “multiple funding sources,” including from outside the county, to support the whole plan, she said.
Hyatt and Olszewski also said the county will continue to “embrace proven violence reduction strategies." The county recently expanded the number of police area sectors from two to three, each led by a major, to give area commanders the freedom to more effectively focus resources. The department also established a permanently-assigned night commander to provide further supervision and leadership overnight.
The county also will increase the police department’s ability to use targeted crime prevention initiatives in “hot spots” and “at key times of activity.”
Olszewski, a Democrat, also reiterated the county’s strategies to attract and retain police officers. The county recently reduced the number of officer vacancies, but Hyatt said attrition and retirements continue.
Olszewski said police officials will implement a pilot program this year to allow department staff to drive police vehicles home. The county also will invest more in additional recruitment efforts, implement foreign language proficiency stipends and referral bonuses, and conduct a comprehensive review of their hiring process.
"The reality is criminals don’t respect jurisdictional lines,” said Hyatt, stressing the department is working alongside other police agencies to address crime.
The county is part of the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force with other local, state and federal agencies and continues to coordinate with the State’s Attorney’s Office on building and prosecuting cases, Olszewski said. The county also is increasing coordination and information sharing with the Baltimore Police Department about regional crime concerns and areas around the city and county border, he said.
Baltimore County also is working with the state and the county delegation to expand multi-jurisdictional strategies, such as the Warrant Apprehension Task Force and the Regional Auto Theft Task Force. Olszewski said officials increased collaboration with the State Division of Parole and Probation, including through joint supervision efforts and having state agents participate in weekly police department meetings.
Baltimore County Councilman David Marks said there are “a lot of good steps” in the plan Olszewski and Hyatt outlined. Residents feel safer when they notice police officers parking their work vehicles at home, for instance, but Marks said the county historically has “shelved” that plan due in part to the prevalence of officers who live outside of the county.
The Perry Hall Republican also said law enforcement nationwide needs to step up their use of technology to identify areas dealing with high rates of criminal activity.
“Unfortunately a lot of our problems stem from the fact that we border Baltimore City, and that violence, I think, is seeping over into the suburbs,” Marks said.
Most importantly, Marks said, the county “needs a larger presence” of police officers. More than 1,800 officers are employed in the department, according to county data.
Marks said Olszewski needs to look into ways “to reduce bureaucracy” and expenses to fund more openings for police officers. The county needs to focus on increasing the police presence in the 2021 fiscal year budget scheduled to be passed in July, Marks said. Additionally, he said the county needs to encourage Baltimore City to bolster its crime fighting efforts.
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“It’s fine to talk about partnerships and neighborliness,” Marks said. “But on the other hand, when the city is not acting, I think we can be more critical.”