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Baltimore leaders 'decided to cut back on policing and prosecution' before homicides surged, Rosenstein says

When it comes to the surge in Baltimore homicides that started in 2015 and continues to this day, everyone has a theory about the cause or causes.

That includes Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, who in 2015 headed the U.S. attorney’s office in Baltimore before being tapped by the Trump administration in early 2017 to take the number two job at the Justice Department.

In a speech in Florida on Monday, Rosenstein recounted the modern low 197 homicides in Baltimore in 2011, which he said was the result of his and other local, state and federal authorities joining together “to dismantle violent gangs and send armed criminals to prison for lengthy terms.”

Then, in 2015, “local authorities decided to try a new strategy. They decided to cut back on policing and prosecution,” he said.

“What happened next?” Rosenstein asked in prepared remarks at the American Correctional Association conference in Orlando, Fla. “Baltimore’s murder rate skyrocketed. In 2017, the murder rate was the highest in history. Hundreds of additional people lost their lives, and many hundreds more were wounded by bullets.”

Rosenstein did not respond to questions seeking more clarity on his comments on Monday.

T.J. Smith, a police spokesman, said the police department “continues to work very closely with our federal law enforcement partners to address our top priority: driving down violent crime in Baltimore.”

Melba Saunders, a spokeswoman for Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby, declined to comment.

The rise in homicides followed unrest in the city after the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray from injuries suffered in police custody, rioting on the day of his funeral, and the decision by Mosby to charge six police officers involved in Gray’s arrest. (None was convicted.)

Arrests dropped off afterward, and some speculated that officers stopped being proactive after seeing the charges against their colleagues, which many felt were unwarranted. Others said the perception that police had backed off, true or not, had emboldened criminals.

A whole slew of other reasons have been put forward. Some have pointed to the correlating surge in opioid overdoses and the rise in the synthetic drug fentanyl in shaking up drug markets. Police have lamented illegal gun possession is a misdemeanor and suggested judges are being too lenient on repeat offenders. Mayor Catherine Pugh has said there simply aren’t enough police officers on the streets. Activists have said police are overfunded and not enough money is being spent on social services and investments in underprivileged communities.

Behind closed doors, finger-pointing is rampant.

Rosenstein, since taking his new position, has mentioned Baltimore multiple times in speeches, usually to lament the high crime here. He has generally shied away from singling out individual “local authorities” to blame, but hasn’t been shy about the fact that he thinks things are a mess.

In November, after Baltimore Detective Sean Suiter was fatally shot in West Baltimore, Rosenstein, giving another speech in another city, quoted Pugh as saying that crime in Baltimore is “out of control.”

“If that is true, people should be held accountable,” Rosenstein continued. “Crime is not like the weather. If crime is out of control, it is because people failed to control it.

“In Baltimore, local authorities lost confidence in their ability to manage public safety, the most important function of government.”

Again, he didn’t say who he was referring to specifically.

krector@baltsun.com

twitter.com/rectorsun

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