Not continuing calls by residents to end the violence, not the launch of a police surveillance plane, not even the coronavirus pandemic have slowed Baltimore’s relentless pace of homicides. Approaching the year’s halfway point, more people have been killed in the city than during 2019, which had the highest homicide rate on record.
The stay-at-home orders have not abated the killings, even though crime in most other categories has dipped, according to police and crime statistics. And now, with restrictive health measures easing and the historically violent summer months arriving, Baltimore police are working to come up with solutions.
“The bad actors who are committing murders are still out,” said Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison said.
Baltimore has counted 164 homicides this year, more than 152 at this time last year when the city eventually saw a 348. The Northwestern and Southwestern districts have been the hardest hit, with 27 and 26 homicides, respectively.
The city has a new tool in its efforts to stem violence. A pilot program started in May launched a police surveillance plane, which flies over the city during daylight hours in an effort to help investigate and track suspects in serious cases and, hopefully, police say, act as a deterrent to would-be criminals.
Harrison said in a recent interview that the program has not yet led to any arrests, but it has shown some promise.
“As of this moment, it has not turned into any clearance of any homicides or shootings, although there are a number of cases that are captured,” Harrison said.
The controversial program, however, has led to the production of 44 “evidentiary packets,” which are forwarded to detectives investigating homicides and other serious crimes.
“I am keeping an open mind. I had no expectations about the program,” said Harrison, adding he wants to hear from researchers who are supposed to evaluate the project at the end of its six-month pilot, which runs until the fall.
“I am not against rearranging priorities. If you are going to defund police and cut out services, then someone has be to able to pick up that slack.”
Police Commissioner Michael Harrison
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The program, with a $3.7 million budget, was supposed to operate with three planes. Police spokeswoman Lindsey Eldridge said so far two planes are operating, and a third will be put it use after a delay needed to acquire equipment from a vendor.
The planes, their pilots, analysts and hangar space are being funded by Texas philanthropists Laura and John Arnold through their organization, Arnold Ventures. The technology is capable of capturing images of 32 square miles of the city for a minimum of 40 hours a week.
While the surveillance plane may or may not represent hope for the future, police are struggling to deal with the present.
June’s 35 killings eclipse last year’s total by one and are part of a particularly violent stretch. In May, 39 people were killed, the highest since May 2015, when 42 died.
Among this year’s victims are 16-year-old Ala’junaye Davis, an honors student at the National Academy Foundation High School in Baltimore, a popular student who loved hip-hop music. She enjoyed dressing in brightly colored clothes and was a standout student, described by one teacher as “studious and naturally gifted.”
Those deaths came at the height of Maryland’s battle to stem the coronavirus. Harrison said even with fewer people allowed out in public, the department continued to receive about the same level of calls for service.
There have been marked decreases in crime overall, including nonfatal shootings, which are down about 14%, from 343 to 287, compared with last year, police records show. Robberies have dropped by about 20%, burglaries are down 23%, and auto thefts are down 22%.
To address the persistent increase in homicides, Harrison said the department has undertaken new deployment strategies.
“We have a plans for heightened visibility and patrol strategies for the summer months, a lot of it is readjusted because of COVID, so we are still dealing with that,” he said.
City Council President Brandon Scott, the Democratic nominee expected to become mayor of a city on pace for a sixth straight year of more than 300 homicides, said more needs to be done to combat the violence.
“What I want to continue to focus on is recognizing that we have to figure out a way to get a hold on the violence,” he said.
Scott said the continued violence in Baltimore is not a surprise, pandemic or not. He is pushing the department to focus on violent, repeat offenders who he believes are responsible for the majority of the city’s violence.
Harrison said there must be a more holistic approach if a long-lasting, sustainable drop in homicides is to be achieved.
“To really reduce murders, you have to have programmatic solutions,” he said. “For far too long, everybody had relied on police visibility and deployment strategies. But in a crime of premeditation, deployment strategies can only be so effective.”
One initiative Harrison spoke of is the department’s attempt to find a nonprofit partner to create a “focused deterrence” program that targets high-risk people, helping them get services and other opportunities that will discourage them from committing crimes.
“Focused deterrence is building the programmatic solutions and prevention that deals with rehabilitation, and reentry,” he said
Dayvon Love, the group’s policy director, doesn’t envision the police department immediately being disbanded, but instead said there is an opportunity to build up programs like Safe Streets, which relies on “violence interrupters” in the community to help diffuse conflicts.
“When you give people, in the face of issues of safety and violence, two options — more police or less police — they’re going to choose more police,” Love said in an interview with The Sun earlier this month, explaining that ending policing entirely is not realistic.
Harrison said he agrees solutions outside of policing are necessary to address the root causes of violence.
But taking money away from Baltimore’s police department right now would be harmful, he said, especially as it already is undergoing a transformation as part of widespread reforms mandated under a federal consent decree. The consent decree, among many requirements, calls for increasing the number of police officers, improved training and better technology — all of which cost money.
The agreement between the Baltimore and the U.S. Department of Justice was reached after what federal investigators called years of violations of people’s constitutional rights at the hands of some Baltimore police officers.
“I am not against rearranging priorities,” Harrison said. “If you are going to defund police and cut out services, then someone has be to able to pick up that slack.”
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Other cities, including New York, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Milwaukee and Washington, D.C., have all seen increases in homicides this year during the pandemic. Milwaukee’s homicide rate is up 80%, while D.C.‘s is up 10%, according to those departments.
“Things occurring across the country that are not unique to Baltimore,” said Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research.
Webster said many factors are contributing, including “the suddenness in the economic shock” from the coronavirus pandemic, which has put stress on many people. Additionally, the virus has strained many systems, from law enforcement to healthcare and education.
And the recent unrest nationwide over police brutality and racial injustice also contributed to tensions.
“There are all kinds of social divisions, things that are creating stress in people’s lives. We’re in a different time,” he said. “A combination of pretty dramatic shock and vulnerability and heavily stressed people just wondering how they are going to get by.”