At breakfast meeting, Baltimore business leaders question city's efforts to reduce crime

A top adviser to Baltimore’s mayor on Thursday discussed sweeping plans to reduce violent crime in the city, speaking to business leaders who expressed continued concerns about the safety of their employees.

“You can’t go outside of this office at 3 p.m. It’s very, very scary. My employees will not leave the office,” said Rick Faby, a branch manager and senior vice president of investments at Benjamin F. Edwards & Co. on Calvert Street downtown. He said his employees won’t leave the office for a delivery or other concerns, despite security guards, which makes him question keeping in his office downtown.

“I have a choice. Am I going to take the lease and double the size of my office? Or, I can open an office in Hunt Valley and Columbia and not have the crime and not have the worries,” he said.

Faby was among the dozens of business leaders who attended a presentation given by Drew Vetter, the director of the Mayor’s Office on Criminal Justice, who spoke about the city’s plans to reduce crime and improve public safety Thursday morning. Vetter’s presentation is part of a monthly speaker series hosted by the Greater Baltimore Committee, a public-private partnership of business and civic leaders focused on economic growth, job creation and quality of life.

Vetter began his presentation saying that “violence concentrates in certain hot spots throughout the city.”

To reduce violence in the city, “we have to be selective, and narrowly focused,” balanced in punishment and strategies, and be “legitimate” by building trust with residents, Vetter said, quoting a researcher from Harvard University who gave a presentation about in Baltimore last year on crime reduction.

Vetter described the recent initiatives the mayor’s office has promoted to decrease violence, including the Violence Reduction Initiative that targets specific problem areas with an increased police presence, and other agencies to address issues, such as vacant houses, lighting and trash. Vetter also spoke about improvements in technology for the police department, including additional CitiWatch cameras and a new ShotSpotter system to detect gun discharges, and new laptops in police vehicles.

Vetter said the city is seeking funding from the state to increase the number of Safe Streets sites, which have ex-offenders help resolve neighborhood disputes that might otherwise lead to violence, and Vetter spoke of the Roca program, which connects high-risk young adults to jobs and aims to keep them out of jail, among other initiatives.

Officials are also hopeful about recent, substantial decreases in shooting and homicides, which are still too high, but the progress is encouraging, Vetter said.

Crime is down in nearly every category this year, homicides, robberies and carjackings, according to the most recent city data.

But after his presentation, several in the audience questioned Vetter about the city’s efforts outside of violent crime.

Lisa Rusyniak, president & CEO at Goodwill Industries of the Chesapeake, Inc., said she’s concerned about the safety of her employees at Goodwill’s downtown offices. Rusyniak said several employees have been mugged or followed by groups in recent months.

“What’s being done about downtown?” she asked after the presentation. “I have employees who are afraid. They don’t want to come downtown anymore,” she said.

Vetter responded to her, saying that the safety of downtown is “incredibly important.”

Vetter also noted that the number of robberies decreased about 30 percent last year in the Central District, while other areas in the city saw increases last year.

The decline is “an indication of how seriously the departments taking it,” Vetter said, and how new officers typically are sent downtown where they spend the first 90 days of their career on foot patrol.

Vetter said he’s “encouraged” by the recent declines but cautioned that “we will never be incident free.”

Jay Steinmetz, the CEO of Barcoding, a logistics company, said that the city has continued to provide a bad business climate for decades, forcing many to relocate to the county where they have lower taxes and not a crime issue.

“[The city] continues to double down on bad policies. ...All we do is talk about special program after special program, after another special program,” but crime continues to get worse, he said. Steinmetz also referenced a recent USA Today report that called Baltimore the most dangerous big city in the country, he said.

Baltimore is plagued by high crime, taxes and poor schools, he said. “Who is going to move here. How am I going to create jobs for kids here if you create a bad economic environment,” he said

Creating a healthy environment for business will help create jobs and reduce the number of residents who fall into crime, he said.

“What [Vetter] was missing is true root causes” of why some individuals become violent, he said after the event. He said many youth simply lack opportunities for jobs, but a city program isn’t the answer.

“You can’t create a special program to do that. You create an environment that causes companies to want to be here,” he said.

Faby said more needs to be done addressing safety. He said one company that continues to expand, Under Armour, has largely sidestepped the issue by developing on an isolated area that’s safe for their employees, but that’s not a solution for most companies.

Faby said he wants to keep his office in the city and expand its presence.

“I am a Baltimorean,” he said.

jkanderson@baltsun.com

twitter.com/janders5

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