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Baltimore mayor's crime office in disarray amid staff departures

The Mayor's Office on Criminal Justice — a once-influential Baltimore agency that devises crime-fighting strategies, coordinates with the state and applies for grant funding — is in disarray.

As homicide and other violent crime rates in the city continue to rise, the office has lost about half its staff, including the director and the coordinator of its Sexual Assault Response Team. At the same time, the city has lost more than $1 million in grant funding for its Safe Streets program, in which ex-offenders intervene in neighborhood disputes to cut down on violence.

"The Office on Criminal Justice is critical to the development of a public safety strategy," said City Councilman Brandon Scott, chairman of the council's Public Safety Committee. "To not have anyone there is a grave concern to me. I'm willing to help in any way I can to aid the administration to figure this out.

"What we have going on is a violence epidemic, and it has to be all hands on deck."

Baltimore has suffered from its highest homicide rate on record over the past two years, and the pace of killing has escalated this year. Murders are up 26 percent compared to last year; shootings are up 24 percent and robberies are up 20 percent.

At a recent City Council committee hearing, Scott asked police officials why there wasn't a better plan in place to combat violence headed into the summer, when homicide rates sometimes spike. Police officials said the mayor's office was working hard to secure summer jobs for youths.

"If we had a functioning [Mayor's Office on Criminal Justice], they would have made sure we had a summer strategy," he said.

Mayor Catherine Pugh said the criminal justice office is going through a "reorganization." She said some of the departures from the office are due to grant-funded positions expiring, but she's looking for money to turn some of the jobs into permanent positions.

Pugh emphasized that her administration is committed to solving the long-term problems that contribute to crime, including poverty, joblessness and drug abuse — and is forging partnerships while her team figures out its vision for the Mayor's Office on Criminal Justice.

For instance, Pugh has partnered with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to bring a mobile gun-tracing lab to the city and recently met with the Drug Enforcement Administration about sending more agents to the city to help stem rising fatal drug overdoses, which are rising.

More than 800 people died of overdoses last year in Baltimore compared with fewer than 400 in 2015, according to Police Commissioner Kevin Davis. In many Baltimore neighborhoods, the unemployment rate is greater than 10 percent.

"The illegal drug trafficking that's going on in our city is out of control," Pugh said. "Federal assistance is coming in. ... Our focus has to be on reducing the gun violence in our city."

The Mayor's Office on Criminal Justice has played a key role in a number of efforts to combat gun violence and drugs. It has worked on the anti-gun Ceasefire program, the Citiwatch surveillance program, programs to keep juveniles out of the criminal justice system, and McElderry Park neighborhood revitalization efforts. The office has helped provide support for domestic-violence and sexual-assault victims and tracks some $20 million in grants.

Some of those efforts are now in limbo due to staff departures, budget cuts and lost grant funding.

Olivia "Sunny" Schnitzer, the office's acting director, resigned in January. Lori Lickstein, coordinator of the city's Sexual Assault Response Team and anti-human trafficking efforts, resigned in February. Stephanie Suerth, the grants manager, resigned in April. Kisha A. Brown, the former director of the Office of Civil Rights who was transferred to the job of acting director of criminal justice office, also has left. She was the third director — interim or otherwise — to leave in half a year.

Pugh's budget cuts $2.2 million from the office's coordination of public safety strategy efforts, $100,000 from Citiwatch and $130,000 from juvenile justice efforts.

Lickstein said she was proud of her and her colleagues' work in the office. They secured about a $1 million in grants for work combating sexual assault and human trafficking, and helped create an interview room for victims of sexual assault so they might feel more comfortable talking to police.

"The office worked collaboratively with other city agencies and was very successful in helping the community and the city, particularly some of our most vulnerable," she said. "I know a lot of good work is still going on in the office, and I hope it continues."

Suerth said she considers the office's remaining employees "incredibly intelligent and talented people, and I'm really looking forward to what the future holds for them."

Pugh's budget does not mention the Safe Streets program, which is run out of the city Health Department. Pugh spokesman Anthony McCarthy said city officials have $200,000 for the program, but need an additional $1.2 million "since state grant funding did not come through."

Pugh instructed her chief of staff, Tisha Edwards, to lead a reorganization of city government and to oversee criminal justice efforts. During her State of the City speech, Pugh said she looked forward to "restructuring" the Mayor's Office on Criminal Justice.

Edwards plans to leave city government this month to become president of the educational organization BridgeEDU. Pugh said she still plans to revamp the office.

"Many of the positions in criminal justice are grant-funded. We had one young lady who left because her grant ran out," Pugh said. "We've got to make room for what criminal justice is going to look like in our city, what policing is going to look like in our city. ... We're trying to find some cost savings without impacting the roles of those agencies.

"We're restructuring."

Pugh inherited a criminal justice office that had been plagued with problems but had recently returned to full strength.

Under former Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, the prior Ceasefire director resigned in protest amid concern that city officials failed to provide promised resources — from job training to relocation — for offenders who were looking to get out of the drug trade.

Three others also left the office as Baltimore endured a rash of homicides and other violence following the unrest after Freddie Gray's death in police custody.

"It appears the office has been on the decline for some months now starting with the prior administration," said City Councilman Leon Pinkett. "Some of the positions were never filled. That could be natural when you have a change of administration, but this could be an important part of our overall public safety strategy.

"Where we are with crime, we need every resource possible."

Baltimore Sun reporter Catherine Rentz contributed to this article.

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