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Baltimore police trumpet improvements in year since Harrison’s crime plan debuted. But killings and hiring woes persist.

Baltimore City Police Commissioner Michael Harrison, flanked by State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby, City Council President Brandon Scott and Mayor Bernard C. "Jack" Young during the unveiling of Harrison's crime plan a year ago. An update shows some goals remain elusive, while progress has been made in reducing crime and stopping overtime abuse.
Baltimore City Police Commissioner Michael Harrison, flanked by State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby, City Council President Brandon Scott and Mayor Bernard C. "Jack" Young during the unveiling of Harrison's crime plan a year ago. An update shows some goals remain elusive, while progress has been made in reducing crime and stopping overtime abuse. (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)

A year after Baltimore Police announced a five-year plan to cut crime, increase efficiency and recruit more officers, Commissioner Michael Harrison said the department has achieved “positive momentum” in areas — even as a high homicide rate persists and hiring remains stagnant.

“Over the last year, we have undertaken numerous changes in our Department that [have] led to further accountability, more fiscal responsibility, newer technology, more rigorous training as well as implementing stronger networks to streamline how our resources are managed,” Harrison said in a statement Wednesday.

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Harrison said the results are an overall crime reduction with the exception of homicides, which have remained at nearly the same pace as last year, when 348 people were killed. Baltimore has had 175 killings as of Wednesday, compared with 177 at the same time last year.

All other major crime categories, including non-fatal shootings, assaults, robberies and burglaries declined year-over-year. Robberies are down 15%, while burglaries are down 21%.

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The report comes a year after Harrison, then six months into the job, released a much anticipated, long-term plan to reduce crime. It included creating “micro-zones” aimed at concentrating police resources in the most high-crime neighborhoods, upgrading the department’s aging technology and reducing response time.

The latter effort has succeeded, the report said. While the goal was to drop response time to less than 10 minutes, the department now responds to the average call in eight minutes, according to the report.

Lester Davis, a spokesman for Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young said Harrison recently met with Young to discuss the plan.

“There’s obviously a lot of hard work that has gone into year one. I think everyone is obviously committed to stepping it up to year two, particularly when you talked about shootings and homicides,” Davis said. “The commissioner is obviously setting the department for long-term success.”

City Council President Brandon Scott, the Democratic nominee for mayor, said the changes over the past year “represent a positive step for BPD. However, the amount of homicides and shootings that continue to plague our city is unacceptable and must be the priority moving forward."

Scott added, “We must continue to reimagine public safety in our city while simultaneously focusing on ending the flow of illegal guns that end up in the hands of those committing the violence.”

Mike Mancuso, head of the local FOP chapter, asked The Baltimore Sun for a copy of the report but did not comment.

Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer, chair of the Public Safety committee, could not be reached for comment.

The overall drop in crime comes as many cities, including Baltimore, face unprecedented challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic, and as homicide rates increase across the country. Chicago police have reported a 34% increase in homicides through June, while New York City logged a 21% increase compared with the same time last year.

Since coronavirus cases were first reported in Maryland in March, more than 500 Baltimore police officers have had to self-quarantine because of illness or as a precaution, and two police districts briefly closed as a result of cleaning when officers assigned to those districts tested positive.

Though statewide stay-at-home orders meant fewer people on the street to commit crimes or to be victimized — and reduced burglaries since people were at home — Harrison has said that crime rates were already falling well before the effects of the pandemic. And calls for service remain largely unchanged, he said.

“I believe that these accomplishments represent positive momentum and a foundation that we will build upon this upcoming year and beyond in order to further our ultimate goals of sustainable crime reduction through fair and impartial policing,” Harrison said in Wednesday’s statement.

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The report comes as police budgets have been scrutinized amid calls to “defund police” departments and shift resources to social and prevention programs following the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis. Though Baltimore police officers were largely praised for their subdued response to local demonstrations, some critics continue to question the amount of money spent on the department, as well as the department’s ability to police itself in the face of several high-profile scandals.

The report notes several changes to the department’s Public Integrity Bureau, including hiring a veteran FBI official to head the unit, creating a new policy manual and speeding up the pace of public investigations. Among the reforms highlighted in the annual review is the implementation of the Ethical Policing Is Courageous, a program encouraging officers to intervene to prevent wrongful actions by other officers.

But the report made no mention of several high-profile incidents that plagued the department in the past year.

For example, lawyers for a man charged by police in January released video this month disputing an officer’s account that led to the man’s arrest. The officer initially received praise from public officials after a video showed him apparently being assaulted while trying to make an arrest.

But the new video appears to show the officer initiating the altercation and being the aggressor, the lawyers said.

Also this month, a homicide unit sergeant was arrested in Baltimore County after he allegedly threatened a home contractor while three of the sergeant’s fellow detectives were present.

Several of the reforms highlighted in the report are required by a federal consent decree, including increased spending on new technology, a new records management system and the creation of new use-of-force policies.

Much of the consent decree reforms and the crime plan rely on hiring 300 more officers. But according to recent department figures, 116 officers have left the department through June, and only 104 have been hired.

The annual report doesn’t include staffing levels, but it does note several efforts to increase the number of officers on the street, including the creation of the administrative duties division, which has resulted in more than 100 officers returning back to the street after they have been injured.

The report also said Harrison reduced overtime by 30%, saving the city millions of dollars, by creating policies for better oversight.

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“I am extremely proud of the brave men and women of the BPD, and their commitment and progress that is making our agency the greatest comeback story in America,” Harrison said.

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