Calling violence in Baltimore “out of control,” Mayor Catherine Pugh ordered 30 agency heads to meet every morning at police headquarters, and to make crime reduction the top mission not only of police, but also of health workers, housing officials and public works crews.
The mayor ordered the directors of more than half of the city’s 55 departments to report to meetings daily at 8 a.m., when they will plan with Police Commissioner Kevin Davis where weeds should be cut, lead paint covered and drug houses boarded up and job applications can be handed out, among other tasks.
Pugh appeared at City Hall Thursday flanked by agency heads.
“Violence in the city is out of control,” she said. “I want every neighborhood to know I am extremely concerned and focused on reducing violence.”
Killings in the city have surged past 300 this year for a third year in a row. Violent crime is up 13 percent over last year, and reports of groups of youths attacking people apparently at random have dominated recent local news cycles.
Pugh said she was calling on businesses and philanthropies to help fund a $10 million expansion of the anti-violence Safe Streets program. And she extended night and weekend hours at six recreation centers to try to keep young people out of harm’s way.
“We must do everything we can,” Pugh said. “We’ve already hit 303 murders, which is totally unacceptable. … We know we can do better.”
City Councilman Brandon Scott, the chairman of the council’s public safety committee and a frequent critic of Pugh, said he was pleased with the mayor’s approach. He said addressing broken street lights, vacant buildings and other problems can help cut down on crime.
Scott said he has been saying as much for months.
“My only disappointment is it didn’t happen earlier,” he said. “I think it can have an immediate impact. When you’re focusing on small geographical areas, you can see the same block where we’ve had three shootings, there are hundreds of housing violations and streets lights out and a rec center that can be opened.”
City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young called the mayor’s plan a “good first step” in addressing the violence.
The mayor’s news conference came shortly after another held by Davis at police headquarters. The commissioner decried a “broken juvenile justice system,” in which he said judges, prosecutors, parents and other guardians are failing the young people in their care, and thus the city at large.
Davis said he asks himself every day what else police can do — and believes others in the community must do the same. He said police officers are making arrests and taking violent offenders off the streets, only to see them released with little or no repercussions.
“Poverty, unemployment, family dysfunctions, drug addictions — all those things are very, very real in our city,” Davis said. “But they do not excuse violent behavior by anyone, particularly juveniles.
“We need to all look ourselves in the mirror as a community of parents, grandparents, guardians in particular, and get ahold of these violent kids who are wreaking havoc in our city right now.”
Davis cited the violent carjacking of a 35-year-old man by a group of juveniles near a synagogue in Northwest Baltimore on Thursday morning, and a series of recent attacks downtown and on Halloween night in the city.
He said police see the same youths committing crimes time and time again. He said he knows of one 16-year-old boy who has been arrested ten times since 2014 — for larceny, attempted robbery, burglary, carjacking, assault, two theft charges and three car theft charges — but keeps being released. He said many juveniles have similar records.
“We know who they are,” Davis said. “And if we know who they are — and the reason why we know who they are is because we lock them up again and again and again — then I’m pretty damned certain that their parents and guardians and grandparents and neighbors know who the hell they are as well.
“Step up. Step forward. Get ahold of these violent kids. It’s absolutely unacceptable that I have to stand up here and talk about 13- and 14-year-olds that we have to arrest again and again because our criminal justice system and our society isn’t doing what we need to be doing with these kids.”
Davis said he spoke to Baltimore City Schools CEO Sonja Santelises “at length” on Wednesday, and they are “looking to see what we can do more together.”
“There are a lot of privacy laws associated with juveniles who are arrested and charged with crimes, and we’re going to work with our attorneys to figure out how we can share the identities of these violent young people with the school system in a legal way so they can attempt some interventions,” Davis said. “Right now, their behaviors need to be interrupted. They either need to be interrupted with a jail cell or some other type of intervention. But the way we’re doing it right now isn’t working.”
Santelises said some of the youths committing crimes have dropped out of school.
“One of the things we’re working on is paying far closer attention to our chronic absentees,” she said. “We are identifying: Who are the young people in each school who are most vulnerable to being recruited for criminal activity?”
Under Maryland law, 16- and 17-year-olds who are charged with violent crimes appear first in adult court. Davis has expressed frustration at the number of such cases that are then moved to juvenile court.
Police spokesman T.J. Smith said the percentage of such cases has “increased dramatically” in recent years.
“That’s not saying juveniles have become less violent or less dangerous,” he said. “They’re just not prosecuting them as adults.
“We’re not trying to over-criminalize anyone. But I think any victim in the city that has a gun stuck in their face by a 16-year-old kid, and their car taken from them, or they’re beat up by this 16-year-old kid with a gun stuck in their face, want that child to be held accountable in some way, shape or form. And that child should not have an opportunity to stick that gun in the face of multiple individuals.”
Davis said the rehabilitation-only focus of the juvenile justice system in Maryland is appropriate for mischief, destruction of property, trespassing or shoplifting. But “today’s violent juvenile offender is robbing people, assaulting people, and carjacking people,” he said, and “our lawmakers need to strengthen the consequences and lower the threshold for detention.”
Police have arrested four juveniles in a Halloween night attack on a woman with a wooden board. Smith said a small group of young people are “disproportionately responsible for way too much of this type of violent crime.”
In the carjacking Thursday morning, Davis said, the victim had just dropped his child off at school when “he was pinned by a suspect vehicle against his car.”
“He started to run away and they chased him, the suspects chased him, beat him up, took his car keys, and took off in his car,” Davis said.
Police are working with regional partners to investigate the incident, Davis said.
City Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer, who represents the area, said more must be done to address violent attacks by juveniles.
“I’m going to be very clear,” he said. “Those who are committing violent offenses in our communities, wreaking havoc on our communities and our citizens, must be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. These are people who are holding people up at knifepoint, at gunpoint, beating up innocent people, stealing their cars. They need to be held accountable.”
Schleifer said he wants to know why certain offenders he knows from the neighborhood keep getting released after being arrested despite their records.
“How did they get to the point where they are running around with ankle bracelets on and still committing offenses?” he asked.