Baltimore Police have deployed a new traffic enforcement patrol unit, the Metro Mobile Unit, to help reduce crime. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun video)
As Baltimore Police Officer Jennifer Bradshaw cruises down Pennsylvania Avenue, her radio crackles with reports of a shooting on Gorman Avenue.
"All mobile metro units head in that direction," a voice advises. Bradshaw makes a U-turn, then brakes as a group of women with small children dart between traffic.
The officer holds the radio to her ear, straining to hear more. Details trickle out: three males, all wearing black, and riding in a tan Buick. Bradshaw's sergeant tells officers to form a "ring of steel," which she explains is a tactic for officers to surround the shooting scene to search for fleeing suspects.
Bradshaw, an 8-year veteran of the force, is one of a group of Baltimore police officers hand-picked from different units to serve on a new mobile metro unit to help combat the surge of violence that has plagued the city since death of Freddie Gray and the riots of 2015.
The mobile metro unit is an early initiative by new Commissioner Darryl De Sousa, appointed in January to succeed the fired Kevin Davis. At a recent news conference, De Sousa and Mayor Catherine Pugh said the mobile unit known as "10th district" is a key element in their efforts to reduce violent crime in the city. They're also flooding seven Violence Reduction Initiative zones in the city with police patrols and city services, and funding 100 new officers.
The officers in the mobile unit are deployed based on recent crime trends to patrol major corridors throughout the city.
"A lot of violence we were seeing was associated with certain corridors," De Sousa said.
Crime has declined in the two months since the unit was created. Homicides are down 25 percent compared to the same period last year. Nonfatal shootings are down 23 percent, robberies are down 17 percent, aggravated assaults are down 22 percent and auto thefts are down 10 percent. Overall violent crime is down 20 percent.
"We're definitely trending in the direction we want," De Sousa said at a recent news conference. "We have a lot of work to do."
As Officer Bradshaw heads toward the Penrose neighborhood, she scans alleyways in search of the suspects in the tan Buick.
"So many places to dump a vehicle in Southwest," she says. She turns to look across an unevenly paved lot behind a block of tired rowhouses.
Darryl De Sousa, the new Baltimore Police commissioner, said Monday that his stepped up deployment of officers — dubbed Operation Blitz — had yielded results and previewed plans to further reshape the department he was appointed to lead Friday.
Then, over the radio, the description of the vehicle changes — it's now a silver Buick.
Without additional details, Bradshaw decides to head directly to the shooting scene on Gorman Avenue. Other cruisers and yellow police tape block off the street. Several women stand behind the tape, hugging each other and crying.
Bradshaw meets other members of the mobile unit to learn what information they've been able to glean from the officers at the scene. They helped clear the house where the shooting occurred, they tell her, but no other suspect description is available.
Police would later say that gunmen kicked in the back door of a home and shot Chanette Neal, 43, and her daughter, Justice Allen, 21. Both died at the hospital.
Major Sheree Briscoe, commander of the Western District, homicide detectives, and crime scene lab technicians arrived at the scene. Bradshaw got back behind the wheel to continue her search for the suspects and other crime.
A voice on the radio asks for the mobile units to go to their "hot spots." After a major incident, Bradshaw said, as officers descend on a scene, it's not uncommon for criminals to feel other areas of the city are left uncovered. Bradshaw's unit is tasked with maintaining a presence and scanning for anything suspicious around West North and Pennsylvania avenues. Those thoroughfares, where drugs are sold on the street, and violence often follows, have been active areas for police.
Major Robert Jackson commands the mobile metro unit.
"What we found is that the majority of our violent crime is occurring on and 500 feet from our major thoroughfares," he said. "So it makes sense to patrol and have a presence."
Bradshaw heads north on Carey Street, where the road narrows and boarded-up homes sit closer to the street. Her car passes a group of men. One yells out "Yooooo."
Bradshaw says the drug trade here is busy, and the man is calling to warn others of her approach.
One of the unit's responsibilities is traffic enforcement — checking for speeding, people talking on cellphones while driving, broken taillights, missing or outdated tags. The enforcement might seem tedious, especially in a violent city. But Jackson said his officers' active presence is helping the crime fight.
The unit can "hold down an area," giving district commanders time to address other areas, he said.
"They have a lot of fire sometimes, so having resources to put those fires out can become a challenge," Jackson said.
When district patrol officers are busy rushing to respond to calls, they have little time to be proactive — to investigate suspicious behavior and chat up residents.
In the past two months, the mobile unit has taken 10 guns and drugs off the street. Jackson said there's been a clear reduction in violence.
There hasn't been violent crime reported in the areas where they are patrolling, Jackson said. The Gorman Avenue shooting was just beyond the area the group was patrolling, but they responded to assist in the search for the suspect vehicle.
Earlier, Bradshaw pulled behind Officer John Triggs' car to assist him in a traffic stop of a gold Chevrolet pickup truck with a broken tail light and missing front tag. The driver wasn't wearing a seat belt, Triggs said, as a group of men across the street looked on.
"They on it," said the truck's driver, 53-year-old Christopher Campbell of Baltimore. "They are doing their job."
Campbell, who owns rental homes in the area, said he had been stopped by another mobile metro unit officer days earlier for the same issues. He said he was not upset by the beefed-up enforcement.
"I can understand the extra help out here," he said.
Baltimore Police Commissioner Darryl De Sousa said Tuesday that he is considering removing the investigation into Det. Sean Suiter’s death from his department’s homicide unit entirely, because having them investigate their friend and colleague’s death was “unfair” from the start.
Triggs ran Campbell's name through departmental databases on his laptop computer.
"I'm just going to be giving you a warning," he said.
The department received laptops for its cruisers only recently. Other police agencies have used them for years. The department gave its officers smartphones for similar functions, but Triggs said writing a simple traffic ticket can be cumbersome.
"We're just now getting these, thanks to the consent decree," he said. The city negotiated extensive reforms in the court-enforced agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice.
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Triggs, known as the technology guy in the unit, also purchased his own portable printer and a lidar gun, which uses a beam of light to pinpoint a car's speed, and which he is certified by the department to use.
Both Bradshaw and Triggs came from other patrol assignments — Bradshaw from Southeast and Triggs from Northeast. They said their new assignment gives them more opportunities to be proactive in a city riddled with crime and a deep distrust of police.
"We definitely think we are making a difference," Bradshaw said. "You want to see kids out here playing. We want people to be able to come outside."
Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater contributed to this story.