Maryland Senate president presses mayor for answers on crime strategy after Baltimore sets record homicide rate

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller is pressing Mayor Catherine Pugh for answers about her strategy for reducing violent crime in Baltimore, saying the city's murder rate is unacceptable.

Miller told Pugh that with the recent news that Baltimore has the highest murder rate among large U.S. cities, the General Assembly will have to revisit the issue during next year’s legislative session. The Calvert County Democrat promised to make whatever changes are needed at the state level, but demanded to know what city officials need to deal with what he called a crisis.

“In recent public comments, you noted that Baltimore city had 500 more sworn officers under one of your predecessors than it has today,” Miller wrote in the Oct. 11 letter. “What is the plan to hire new officers and, at least as importantly, what is the plan to maximize police presence in communities most battered by crime?”

James Bentley, the mayor’s press secretary, said Pugh “looks forward to meeting with President Miller to discuss increased state assistance for the upcoming legislative session.”

Miller also signaled impatience with the city’s prolonged search for a new police commissioner — a situation that continued Friday.

The mayor of Fort Worth told media in Texas on Friday that it “appears” the chief in her city, Joel Fitzgerald, had taken the job. But her spokeswoman said the comment was taken out of context.

Pugh said Friday that she was vetting candidates and declined to confirm whether Fitzgerald was her choice. Her spokesman said no decision had been made. Pugh has promised to fill the position by the end of the month.

Interim Commissioner Gary Tuggle has led the department since May. He took over from Darryl De Sousa, who was charged with failing to file federal income tax returns.

Miller stressed the need for a permanent commissioner to replace Tuggle, who took himself out of the running after initially expressing interest.

“Regardless of how capable he may be, his interim status makes it exceptionally difficult for him to lead his agency through this crisis,” Miller said.

The Senate leader said he and House Speaker Michael Busch “need to understand Baltimore city’s plan to reduce violent crime.” A spokeswoman said Busch is “on board” with Miller’s efforts.

Miller’s letter refers to a conversation with Pugh last month in which they discussed Baltimore’s crime rate. He told Pugh, a former Senate colleague, that she was “correct that long-term changes cannot be achieved without a relentless focus on fundamental inequalities,” but pushed her to make short-term changes “to demonstrate the gravity of the crisis.”

“The speaker and I need to understand what short-term changes you can implement on your own, or with increased state assistance, to stem the rising tide of violence,” Miller wrote.

The letter takes a swipe at one state agency in the administration of Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, saying that members of Baltimore’s Senate delegation have told Miller the state Department of Juvenile Services is “woefully underperforming in this crisis.” The letter did not offer specifics, but state Sen. Bill Ferguson of Baltimore said he shared concerns with Miller about the juvenile system.

“We are not seeing the results in Baltimore we should expect for rehabilitating delinquent youth,” he said.

Ferguson said he doesn’t think anyone doubts Pugh’s commitment to making the city safer. But he was critical of the delay in hiring a new commissioner.

“There exists genuine concern that a plan is not in place for dealing with this crisis,” he said. “That starts with a leader of the department who is calling the shots on a day-to-day basis.”

Eric Solomon, a spokesman for the juvenile services department, said the agency is “fully engaged” with Baltimore officials in fighting crime.

“The department stands ready to continue improving its collaboration with Baltimore City,” Solomon said. “We are surprised with the inaccurate characterization of our work and welcome the opportunity to meet with Senator Miller and the Baltimore City delegation.”

mdresser@baltsun.com

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