Facing a continued barrage of shootings in the streets, Baltimore leaders are trying an old strategy again to stop the gun violence, saying they now have the will and experience to bring peace.
The city’s spending panel accepted more than $600,000 in grant money last week to launch the Group Violence Reduction Strategy. Based on a policing theory of “focused deterrence,” the strategy has been tried in Baltimore during the late 1990s and in 2014 with little success.
During the 1990s, Mayor-elect Brandon Scott was growing up in the Park Heights neighborhood of Northwest Baltimore. He remembers the program and its staff were hardly a presence there.
“Why we failed before is about not getting down and working with the people on the ground,” Scott said. “We never fully implemented it.”
Cities around the country such as New Orleans and Oakland, California, found success with the strategy in recent years. Now, Scott and Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison are embracing the strategy that city leaders estimate could save 800 Baltimore lives over eight years.
The Group Violence Reduction Strategy hinges on the idea that authorities can stop the violence if they intercept the men most vulnerable to become shooters or victims. Officials would build a network of street-level intelligence to identify rivalries among street gangs and personal vendettas. Then they would approach these men and offer help: a safe place to stay, addiction treatment, the chance for a job, or just the promise of a life beyond the streets.
In one technique knows as “call-ins,” police, prosecutors, clergy and community members would gather the men to confront them about the violence and offer a choice.
“It’s a really simple concept. We’ll help you if you let us, but we’ll stop you if you make us,” said Harrison, Baltimore’s police commissioner.
More than two decades ago, the criminologist David M. Kennedy came to Baltimore to launch a focused deterrence program when Mayor Kurt Schmoke was in office. By late 1999, Martin O’Malley was in City Hall and Kennedy said the new mayor abandoned the program.
O’Malley said he felt the program was too slow to start and limited to too few neighborhoods.
“I had promised people that we would close down the first 10 open-air drug markets within the first six months of taking office,” O’Malley said.
He cited declines in violent crime during his two terms in office. Next, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake recruited Kennedy to try again in 2014. He started work in West Baltimore.
“We were seeing really dramatic reductions in homicides,” Kennedy said. “Things were going well enough that there was expansion into the Eastern District and then Freddie Gray died and everything collapsed.”
Behind the scenes, however, the program already was foundering. One month before Gray’s death, the director of the crime program resigned, complaining that city leaders failed to provide the money and staff to make the effort successful.
The strategy works only if officials follow through to help those who want it and to prosecute those who don’t, said Professor Daniel Webster, director of the Center for Gun Policy and Research at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. He’s studied the efficacy of the strategy in Baltimore.
“I don’t think Baltimore kept their promise the last go round on either of those sides,” Webster said. “I don’t think they kept their promise to hold shooters accountable, nor did they keep their promise to offer help.”
In New Orleans, a violence-reduction strategy helped police suppress shootings among a vulnerable population of Black men ages 16 to 24, said Harrison, who was police chief there before coming to Baltimore.
“It was already up and running when I became the chief,” he said. “I was able to see firsthand how we were able to change the culture of violence in the city and change the way the police department operated.”
The strategy became a component of his crime plan for Baltimore. Here, the Group Violence Reduction Strategy will cost an estimated $1.8 million over three years. A city spokesman said grants and donations will pay the full costs and officials already have raised more than $1 million. Nonprofits such as The Abell Foundation, Baltimore Community Foundation and The Johns Hopkins University have supplied grant money.
“It’s a really simple concept. We’ll help you if you let us, but we’ll stop you if you make us.”— Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison
In recent years, city leaders have tried a host of new programs to stop the violence, from computer models to predict where the next shooting will happen to a community outreach group designed to steer youth away from the violence of the streets.
Still, the city continues to grapple with gun violence. Baltimore has suffered more than 300 homicides for six straight years, reaching the grim milestone again this November. Baltimore closed 2019 with 348 homicides, the second-deadliest year on record. By comparison, New York City recorded 318 murders and that city has 14 times more people.
In Baltimore, rank-and-file officers were discouraged to see that the latest strategy fails to address a shortage of manpower in the streets. The department struggles to retain personnel and remains hundreds of officers short of adequately staffing patrols.
“It’s just frustrating to the rank-and-file officers that manpower is so short and there has been no violent crime plan tailored to fit these shortages,” said Mike Mancuso, president of the city police union.
Mancuso said the strategy also lacks answers for the violence in the days ahead.
“There seems to be no urgency from the PC [police commissioner] to come up with a plan to deal with violence now,” he said.
The new strategy for Baltimore hinges on three initiatives. First, to provide support services for those who want help. Services might include safe housing for someone in imminent danger, treatment for addiction, or counseling to help resolve a grudge on the streets.
“They are also sincere about engaging the community in the strategy building process and ensuring that social services will be available to high-risk people,”— Professor Anthony Braga, Northeastern University
“We’re talking about people who don’t want to be found, right?” said Scott, the mayor-elect. “It’s not going to be easy. You cant walk out into a corner or walk into a house where folks are living the life and say, ‘Hey, Joe. Look Jonathan. Let us help you change your life.’”
The grant money will help the city hire a professional organization of trained social workers.
The second initiative will retool the police intelligence hubs scattered around the city called Strategic Decision Support Centers. These centers will become sites where police, prosecutors and staffers on the ground can share information as they work to connect the shootings and identify men at risk. They may use “shooting scorecards” to rank the most dangerous street crews by the number of violent acts committed.
Third, city leaders have assembled a team of paid consultants — including Kennedy and police commanders in Oakland — to oversee and guide the program. One director, one coordinator and a graduate student will be hired in Baltimore to manage the program alongside police, prosecutors and community groups.
Professor Anthony Braga, director of Northeastern University’s Center on Crime and Community Resilience, has been tapped to oversee the program.
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“I am very optimistic that Baltimore will be successful in reducing homicides given the strong level of commitment that I have observed in my conversations with city officials,” he wrote in an email.
Braga credited the commitment of Scott, Harrison and State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby.
“They are also sincere about engaging the community in the strategy building process and ensuring that social services will be available to high-risk people,” he said.
Still, officials say their work will take time to bring results. They hope for a modest reduction in gun violence by the end of 2021, with better results each year thereafter.
Of course, Baltimore has been here before, said Peter Moskos, a former police officer and professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
“I’d like to know why this time it’s different, but I’m actually a big fan of Braga. So that gives me great hope,” he said. “It could be different because Braga is doing it.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton and librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.