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Baltimore police will sharpen its strategy to target the city’s most dangerous neighborhoods as Mayor Scott promises more oversight

Baltimore police will reduce the number of heavily patrolled “micro zones” so they can concentrate more resources in neighborhoods their statistics show most need extra assistance, a move prodded by new Mayor Brandon Scott and his questions about the underlying crime data.

Scott told The Baltimore Sun that the department will cut the number of zones down from 131 to 81, and that patrol officers will spend more time in those areas actively engaging with community members, as he implements his broader public safety plan. He said some of the 131 zones were not among the city’s most dangerous, and were selected because the department used older data than no longer reflected conditions on the ground.

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In 2019, Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison introduced the zoning strategy requiring officers to spend more time in areas — 15 to 20 minutes three times a shift — that had seen high crime rates for the past five years. Harrison said Tuesday that with 18 months of data since his program began the department can now better identify which areas to target.

The mayor said the reduction in zones is a combination of eliminating some outright as well as combining previously separated nearby zones so as “to encourage officers to focus on overall neighborhood wellness.”

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He asserted that some of the historical crime information used to in deploying the 131 neighborhood zones is either not accurate or outdated. He pointed to the area of 41st St and Falls Road in the Hampden neighborhood, which police data indicates has experienced higher than average crime rates over the past five years.

Scott disagrees, and indicated he is going to be more aggressive in overseeing the department.

“There is no (way) you can convince any citizen in Baltimore that 41st and Falls is one of the most violent places in the city and that the police should be dedicated to being there because there’s so much violence happening there,” Scott said. “There were some [micro zones] where I personally said ‘I don’t care who told you to be there, this is not a place that has a high level of violence.’”

It’s not the first time Scott has criticized the zoning strategy, saying back in 2019 when he was on city council that the department did not have enough patrol officers to proactively patrol high crime areas and needed to incorporate more evidence-based policing to target violent repeat offenders.

Commissioner Harrison did not dispute that the department’s statistics, based on what in 2019 was five years of crime data, resulted in some instances of officers patrolling areas that weren’t in need of such a concentrated approach. But he added that since the program was implemented in the middle of 2019, the department has collected a year-and-a-half of new data that have helped them identify hot spots that will now be the focus of higher deployments.

“More recent data has shown us we’re in a position to consolidate some of those ... or just remove some because of the deployment strategy,” Harrison said. “We want to make sure we’re being extremely efficient with the resources we have and we want to be effective with the deployment strategy.”

While the city’s homicide rate has stayed stagnant, with the city seeing at least 300 homicides for six consecutive years, police touted declines in non-fatal shootings, assaults, robberies and burglaries in a July report, in part due to the micro zones strategy.

Both Scott and Harrison said the zoning strategy goes beyond just having officers in an area, but is designed so that officers who are spending roughly 20-minute chunks of their patrol shifts in these zones can more effectively engage the communities within them.

“It’s not just about being in the zone. The important part is about what officers do in the zone, the engagement that they have [with] other agencies in the zone,” the mayor said.

Scott said that the 81 new zones are among the most crime ridden, representing roughly 30% of the city’s homicides and 45% of all shootings throughout Baltimore.

“We need to focus on the [repeat offenders] and the places where we know violence happens consistently,” Scott said.

The initiative is also designed to have police work cooperatively alongside agencies like the newly created Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement, headed by longtime community leader Shantay Jackson, as well as Safe Streets to address the underlying social factors that have led to crime in those areas.

While Scott said his office and the department will implement and review the condensed program in the coming weeks, he said he has not had an opportunity to review the proposed PROTECT Act, legislation in the General Assembly which would also designate 10 high-crime “micro zones” in the city.

The bill — which was vetoed by Gov. Larry Hogan but has since been overridden by the state Senate and is still pending in the House of Delegates — would also require the city to hire an employee to coordinate community, fund youth and crime prevention programs as well as allow state police to patrol state highways in the city.

Scott said he supports bringing in more state resources to bolster the city’s response to reducing crime.

Harrison said that the department will continue to analyze the deployment strategy moving forward and will work with Jackson and others to engage neighborhood leaders during the plan’s implementation.

“I think it’s important for the people to know we are always assessing our decision and how we deliver policing services,” Harrison said.

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