Acting Maryland U.S. Attorney Stephen M. Schenning said Baltimore violence is a top priority for his office, and more resources may be on their way to combat it. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)
Stephen M. Schenning, who has been serving as Maryland's acting U.S. attorney since Rod J. Rosenstein left to become the Justice Department's No. 2 official, said Baltimore's raging gun violence is a top priority for his office and plans are "afoot" to bring additional federal resources to the city to help deal with it.
"There are efforts to increase the tools that we have and the people that we have to [address] the crisis in Baltimore," Schenning said in an interview last week with The Baltimore Sun. "There is something that is afoot now."
Schenning declined to describe what those resources might be but said the Justice Department "is well aware of the problems that Baltimore is undergoing now, and the attorney general is very clear that he wants to attack the drug trade. It's very clear that he is concerned about gangs."
Schenning also said that "you can't just snap your fingers" as a federal law enforcement official in Baltimore and expect additional resources to pour in, and, even if he could, his office has no intention of taking over for local police and prosecutors whose job it is to secure convictions against the vast majority of Baltimore's criminal defendants.
"It's not the U.S. attorney's job to be the police, to police the neighborhoods, or essentially to be the first line in these awful crimes," Schenning said.
A Baltimore native, Schenning served as first assistant U.S. attorney from 2011 until earlier this year, when he was named acting the office's head following Rosenstein's departure. President Trump has not nominated a permanent replacement.
Schenning's comments come at a time of increased political bluster at the local and national levels about Baltimore violence — which is at historic levels — and what is to be done about it.
Through Monday, there were 211 homicides in the city in 2017, putting it on pace to eclipse all other years on record in terms of the number of killings.
In recent weeks, city leaders have sparred over local penalties for illegal gun possession and whether or not the Pugh administration even has a crime plan.
Top officials in the Justice Department, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions, have announced Baltimore's selection as one of four cities to receive added federal resources in the fight against the nation's opioid crisis. But they also have suggested that broader federal support for the city's crime fight under the department's Public Safety Partnership program is contingent on city compliance with the Trump administration's broader immigration policies — despite the fact that the jail-based policies in question could only be implemented by state officials, as the city jail is state-run.
Sessions recently referred to Baltimore and Chicago as "killing fields" where the Justice Department would support local police, suggesting the need to stem the violence here is on his radar.
Many Baltimoreans have hoped that Rosenstein's appointment as Sessions' second in command would translate into more resources for the city, given Rosenstein's deep understanding of the city's problems from serving as Maryland's U.S. attorney for more than a decade.
Mayor Catherine Pugh and Police Commissioner Kevin Davis have said they would welcome increased federal resources to address the city's violent crime. As far back as January, Davis said that if he had "30 seconds" in an elevator with President Donald Trump, he would ask him to send more federal law enforcement agents and more federal prosecutors to the city.
Schenning largely sidestepped questions about the broader debate around crime in the city and whether he has been given any special directives from the Justice Department to address it. He said he has spoken to Rosenstein a few times since he took over the office, but that Rosenstein "has a lot on his plate."
Schenning said large-scale investigations by his office that lead to the indictment of entire criminal organizations will remain his office's best tool to disrupt crime in the city, no matter what resources arrive. He also said the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and the Drug Enforcement Administration already pay increased attention to the city.
He said he had no opinion on the City Council's mandatory minimum gun bill that would change the penalties for illegal gun possession in the city in some instances. The bill drew criticism from some City Council members who said it would remove judicial discretion in cases for which a mandatory minimum may not be appropriate, such as when a person was carrying a gun out of fear for their own safety.
Schenning said his office is doing its part to punish gun offenders in the city through the Exile Program — which attempts to secure lengthy sentences for felons charged with illegally possessing guns by taking on local cases in consultation with the Baltimore state's attorney's office. The program sends about 60 felons a year away to prison.
He did not discuss specific cases, but his office has highlighted some in recent months.
In one case, defendant Ryan King recently pleaded guilty to illegal gun possession related to a July 2016 incident. According to his plea deal, he brandished a gun at a doorman at the Diamond Lounge on The Block after a fight before being spotted by police fleeing the scene holding a 9 mm Smith & Wesson pistol.
In another recent case, defendant Robert Butler pleaded guilty to illegal gun possession in relation to a June 2016 incident in which, according to his plea deal, he was observed by police walking in a manner that indicated to them that he was carrying a firearm. When officers asked him for his identification, Butler fled. After a chase, he was found to be carrying a Ruger P89 9 mm Luger semiautomatic pistol.
When one of the officers asked Butler why he had the gun, the plea deal says, he responded, "I was just carrying it for protection. I wasn't out here trying to shoot nobody."
Butler faces a maximum sentence of 10 years behind bars plus three years of supervised release. He is scheduled to be sentenced on Sept. 25.