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'We go where the trouble is’: Baltimore among seven cities selected for federal law enforcement ‘surge’

U.S. Attorney Robert K. Hur, right, with Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison, discusses Operation Relentless Pursuit, an effort to combat violent crime in seven of America's most violent cities, following a news conference in Detroit in which Attorney General William P. Barr announced the launch of this initiative. Dec. 18, 2019
U.S. Attorney Robert K. Hur, right, with Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison, discusses Operation Relentless Pursuit, an effort to combat violent crime in seven of America's most violent cities, following a news conference in Detroit in which Attorney General William P. Barr announced the launch of this initiative. Dec. 18, 2019 (Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun)

The Justice Department announced Wednesday that Baltimore is among seven cities struggling with high crime that have been selected to receive what U.S. Attorney General William P. Barr described as a “surge” in law enforcement resources.

Barr called Baltimore the country’s “robbery capital” and cited its high homicide rate, which has surpassed 300 victims for the fifth year in a row. The selected cities will receive a share of 400 new federal agents and personnel, and compete for up to $71 million in grant funding to hire new officers, pay overtime and benefits, and purchase equipment and technology.

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“Our view is that we go where justice is needed most,” Barr said at a news conference in Detroit, another city selected for the program. “It’s intolerable for some Americans to experience high levels of violence while others live in relative peace. We go where the trouble is.”

It was unclear exactly what resources Baltimore could receive, or when. Robert K. Hur, the U.S. Attorney for Maryland, said at a news conference that agencies will be expediting grant applications in the hope that resources will begin to arrive early in 2020.

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Hur said federal and local authorities have been working closely to try to crack down on crime — he said his office has brought a record number of federal prosecutions this year, a 24% increase over last year.

Detroit Police Chief James Craig, left, speaks as U.S. Attorney General William Barr, and FBI Director Christopher Wray listen during the announcement of a new national crime reduction initiative Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2019, in Detroit.
Detroit Police Chief James Craig, left, speaks as U.S. Attorney General William Barr, and FBI Director Christopher Wray listen during the announcement of a new national crime reduction initiative Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2019, in Detroit. (Corey Williams/AP)

“Too many families in Baltimore, too many young people, are living with violence as a reality of their existence — either becoming the victims of violence themselves, or making the terrible choice to inflict violence on others,” Hur said. “The new resources coming to Baltimore will help us build on what we’ve already got in the works.”

In an op-ed in The Detroit News announcing the program, Barr referred derisively to law enforcement reform efforts and what he called anti-police sentiments as helping propel crime in cities experiencing an increase in or stubborn rates of violence.

Police in Baltimore have been operating under a judicially enforced consent decree since 2018, prompted by a civil rights review of the agency by the Justice Department that found widespread abuses. During that review, a separate federal investigation found a unit of plainclothes officers called the Gun Trace Task Force had been lying about probable cause, conducting unjustified searches and robbing people for years, in addition to instances of evidence planting and reselling of drugs.

Asked whether the surge could bring more aggressive policing, Hur said the increased law enforcement efforts would “follow the requirements of the law, the Constitution and the consent decree.” Officials repeatedly said they would focus on the most violent offenders and gangs.

Besides Baltimore and Detroit, the other cities selected for the program are Albuquerque, New Mexico; Cleveland; Kansas City, Kansas and Missouri; Memphis, Tennessee; and Milwaukee.

The program, dubbed “Operation Relentless Pursuit,” is the latest announcement about additional resources being funneled to law enforcement efforts in Baltimore. This week, U.S. Senators Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen announced $4.6 million in grant funding to help identify owners of guns used in violent crimes, provide services to children affected by the opioid crisis, and fund body-worn cameras for police, among other initiatives.

Earlier this month, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan said he will spend state money to hire more than two dozen prosecutors and staff to help the state attorney general prosecute criminal cases in Baltimore. Hogan, a Republican, also said he would fund $21 million in previously announced aid to Baltimore for crime-fighting policies, including upgrades to the Baltimore Police Department’s records lab, the purchase of license plate readers for the department, grants for community policing and money toward a new police academy.

Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, a Democrat, had noted after Hogan’s announcement that resources also would be needed to tackle underlying issues that fuel crime. Frosh appeared at Wednesday’s announcement of the new federal resources and said he welcomed the aid, cautioning only that it would take time for the funded initiatives to get up and running.

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