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Baltimore's whole-city approach to crime

When USA Today crunched the numbers and concluded that Baltimore was the most dangerous city in America, Mayor Catherine Pugh’s response was “That was 2017 — we’re in 2018.” And she has a point. Dating to the end of last year, violence has been heading in the right direction. So far in 2018, homicides, non-fatal shootings and other forms of violence are down by about 30 percent compared to this point last year. But the truth is, even if that holds up, Baltimore will still be one of the deadliest big cities in America. We have to do better.

Mayor Pugh and newly sworn-in Police Commissioner Darryl De Sousa discussed their efforts to combat crime Wednesday at Baltimore Standing Together, a town hall meeting sponsored by The Sun, WJZ and the University of Baltimore, and optimistic as they were, there was no mistaking the enormity of the challenge they — and all of us — face.

Ms. Pugh focused on the interrelated web of social and economic problems that underlie Baltimore’s crime problem — telling, for example, the story of a 14-year-old boy she encountered on a streetcorner one weekday morning, trying to make some money. Ms. Pugh says she got him to school but then encountered him on the street again that night, eventually learning that he was homeless and in need of a job to help feed his family. She said she has managed to get him a job and services but that there are thousands of other kids like him in need of help and mentorship. “We want to get to the children before they get to that point” of engaging in a life of crime and violence, she said.

Mr. De Sousa talked not only about the need to root out corruption — when asked by a member of the audience, “Do you trust your police department?” he did not answer with a simple “yes” — but also the need to get the department in which he has served for 30 years united around a new paradigm of constitutional policing. He’s recently taken commanders on multi-day retreats to try to help them develop a new sense of mission that can be applied through crime fighting plans developed community by community. “They’re excited,” he said. “They want a better and safer Baltimore, just like you and I. They want a mission, and they want it to be specific.”

But in a city where distrust of the police department ran deep even before the death of Freddie Gray and the corruption scandal in the Gun Trace Task Force, a place where city resources are perennially stretched then and where even our best years in stemming homicides see levels of violence that would shock nearly any other American city, making Baltimore truly safe is going to require something more than Ms. Pugh and Mr. De Sousa can offer. It is going to take people throughout the city engaged in an effort to change the culture of violence, heal the trauma that begets more pain and provide opportunities where there are now too few. Representatives of Baltimore Ceasefire, Safe Streets, the No Boundaries Coalition and others among the scores of organizations around the city that are trying to do just that attended and spoke at the town hall.

Despite the challenges, they were optimistic. “For once, the city is moving in a direction where you can get something done,” said James Timpson of Safe Streets, which just celebrated 500 days without a homicide around its McElderry Park site. Both Ray Kelly, the director of No Boundaries, and Erricka Bridgeford, a lead organizer of the Ceasefire movement, said they are seeing results from bringing connection, hope and healing to communities long traumatized by violence. “I’m extremely hopeful because I believe in Baltimore,” Ms. Bridgeford said. “Baltimore is, if you don’t give up on me, I will keep showing you who I am.”

The last three years have been a dark time for Baltimore, but hope remains alive. In 2018, let’s help it grow.

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