Calling the level of violence in Baltimore “completely unacceptable,” Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan described Tuesday a crackdown that’s bringing in 200 law enforcement officers in a “strike force” to fight crime and expansion of a program in which defendants are prosecuted in federal court.
“People who live in Baltimore are rightfully scared,” Hogan said at his Baltimore office, flanked by law enforcement leaders from around the state. “They don’t feel safe in their own neighborhoods. Citizens across the state are outraged by the daily headlines of this rampant gang violence. … They’re crying out for somebody to do something to stop these killings.”
The city has suffered from more than 300 homicides annually for the last four years. Hogan referenced the high-profile shootings of two little girls — sisters, aged 5 and 7 — in separate incidents last year in West Baltimore.
The governor said state and federal officials would launch a “new violent crime joint operation center” in Baltimore, out of which 200 officers from 16 agencies will operate, targeting gangs.
He pledged to fund an expansion of Project Exile, a program through which federal prosecutors charge defendants instead of city prosecutors since successful prosecutions in federal court can lead to longer prison sentences. Hogan also said the state would provide money for signing bonuses to attract more recruits to the Baltimore Police Department.
Acting Baltimore Police Commissioner Gary Tuggle said Hogan is adding state police resources to an ongoing federal initiative called “strike force.”
“The strike force will operate indefinitely,” Tuggle said, adding that the Baltimore Police Department is contributing 14 officers to the operation. “There is a group of us that have been working on this for months. It’s a federal initiative that the governor is bolstering.”
Marcia Murphy, spokeswoman for the Maryland U.S. Attorney’s Office, said her agency welcomed the governor’s support.
“Over the past year, we have been working with our federal, state, and local law enforcement partners to build a task force to reduce violent crime in Baltimore,” Murphy said in an email. “We are delighted that the Governor has added a new State Police group to the ongoing federal strike force in Baltimore.”
Hogan, a Republican, also said he would introduce legislation that would increase mandatory minimum sentences for repeat gun offenders; and a bill that would require the tracking of judges’ sentences to ensure they aren’t letting offenders off lightly. Maryland’s 90-day General Assembly session begins Wednesday.
To help those suffering from crime, the governor also said the state would provide $50 million to fund “every eligible funding request that is received from victim service providers across the state.”
The governor said he believed there is too much focus on the misdeeds of police instead of the violence of criminals, singling out a federal consent decree between the city of Baltimore and the U.S. Department of Justice that requires the city police department to reform its policies and practices after years of discriminatory law enforcement.
“There’s been a whole lot of focus on the consent decree...,” Hogan said. “I think it’s out of balance. We’re going to focus on getting the criminals off the street.”
Amelia Chasse, a spokeswoman for Hogan, would not say where the operations center will be, citing the sensitive nature of the work. Chasse said the center will be “new” and is not a rebranding of programs that have existed in the past, such as a Baltimore Police Department “War Room.” She said it would include officers from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, U.S. Marshals Service, Maryland State Police and others.
“We expect it to be operational in the immediate future,” she said of the center.
It’s the latest joint operation the governor has announced. Last year, Hogan announced a month-long collaboration with the U.S. Marshals, called “Operation Seven Sentries,” that resulted in hundreds of arrests of violent offenders.
City Councilman Brandon Scott, who is chairman of the council’s Public Safety Committee, said there are aspects of the governor’s latest plan he supports — such as requiring more transparency from judges and increasing collaboration between state and city police.
But he took issue with Hogan’s comments concerning the consent decree. Scott said both police reform and crime-fighting deserve more focus.
“Neither has been focused on the level they should,” Scott said.
State Sen. Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat, said he appreciated Hogan’s “willingness to partner with Baltimore to tackle our challenge with violence.”
“We need an all-hands-on-deck approach to deal with the complex issues our city faces,” Ferguson said.
The governor’s announcement came the same day Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh announced that she chose New Orleans Police Superintendent Michael Harrison to lead the city’s Police Department. Her previous pick for commissioner withdrew Monday from consideration.
Pugh called Hogan’s initiatives “great for Baltimore.”
Hogan called the announcement of Harrison “very encouraging news.”
“It’s obviously been somewhat frustrating that for seven months, we haven’t had a permanent decision on the leadership,” he said. “I’ve heard good things about the selection … I just want to get the leadership decided on and get the department moving in the right direction.”
How to best address crime in Baltimore is expected to be a major issue this legislative session.
Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said last month he will push this session for several law enforcement initiatives in Baltimore, including approving a private police force for the Johns Hopkins University. Miller said he wants to help Pugh hire 500 officers for the Baltimore Police Department and create a second police training academy at Coppin State University.
The Senate president, a Calvert County Democrat, said he believes state lawmakers need to help return a sense of pride to law enforcement in Baltimore.
Pugh has been meeting with state lawmakers about her priorities for the city in the session and getting aid to hire and train officers is part of that wish list. She said Baltimore has too few officers patrolling its streets, and that the city needs the state’s help to solve such issues.
Pugh often points out that during then-Mayor Martin O’Malley’s tenure, the police department had about 3,000 officers, but the size of the force was reduced by about 500 positions during the administration of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.