It’s about time that Mayor Catherine Pugh issued a public call to action to end Baltimore’s horrific pace of violence. What we are experiencing is not a blip but evidence of a breakdown in the social order that has only accelerated in the two years since the riots sparked by Freddie Gray’s death. We need, as Mayor Pugh says, everyone in the city to do more to combat violent crime. But we also need an all-hands-on-deck approach to helping the police department do its job.
Implementing the consent decree between the city and Department of Justice on policing practices has the long-term potential to improve the crime fight by eliminating barriers of mistrust between the force and the community. But it can’t be a short-term excuse for not developing a comprehensive strategy for fighting violent crime. Post-Freddie Gray, Baltimore doesn’t want no policing, it wants constitutional policing.
We don’t need a return to the zero-tolerance, lock them up and ask questions later approach that formed the backdrop of the Department of Justice’s scathing report on systematic civil rights abuses by members of the police department. It wasn’t roughing up suspects or conducting mass arrests that drove Baltimore to a modern low in homicides in 2011 (though some of that was still going on). It was an intensity of focus and cooperation between all those involved in the crime fight on the local, state and federal levels that made the difference. Much of that has been lost over the years, but it can be restored. Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein invested more than a decade of his life to fighting crime in Baltimore, and we have every confidence he will provide whatever resources he can. Intense, hour-by-hour coordination between police, prosecutors and state parole and probation officers to focus attention on those offenders most likely to be involved in violent crime — either as perpetrators or victims — was a key to Baltimore’s success six years ago. State police used to routinely take over traffic patrol and other duties from the city so Baltimore officers could focus on higher priority policing. The possibility for those partnerships still exists under Gov. Larry Hogan’s administration. Mayor Pugh has a good relationship with the governor. She needs to capitalize on it.
Some issues are well within the mayor’s control. The Office of Crime Control and Prevention, which has driven policing strategies in the past and has secured and managed grant funding for public safety programs, is a shell of its former self. The City Council had to fight to get key support for the Safe Streets anti-violence initiative in the budget. Its value has been rigorously proved; it shouldn’t still be scrapping for funding.
There are about 500 fewer cops on the street now than there were five years ago. Recruitment is up in the last year, and a recent law change relaxing restrictions on past marijuana use by prospective officers helps, but even if the department were operating at full authorized strength, it would be far below the levels we saw as recently as a decade ago. That’s exacerbating problems with a new four days on, three days off shift schedule the department adopted under the previous commissioner. The department has never had the personnel to make it work. Unfortunately, it was enshrined in the department’s collective bargaining agreement, and the union has resisted pulling it out during the current negotiations. The public and rank-and-file officers need to put pressure on the FOP to agree to eliminate it. It doesn’t make either the community or the police themselves safer to send out short-staffed shifts of officers burned out from mandatory overtime.
Another major handicap for the department is its antiquated technology and use of data. Baltimore police lack mobile reporting technology, so it can take up to six weeks for a hand-written report to land in a database commanders can use to analyze trends and deploy resources. Modern departments do it in real time. Baltimore will pilot new reporting technology in some districts in the coming months.
It needs to combine that with predictive analytics like those used in growing numbers of big city departments to send officers to areas where and when crime is likely to occur.
Police Commissioner Kevin Davis complains about lax penalties for carrying a gun illegally. He says those at risk of becoming involved in violence believe they have more to fear from the street consequences not carrying a gun than they do from the legal consequences of carrying one, and that has helped routine confrontations turn deadly. We agree; the legislature should make that crime a felony.
But the lack of computers in police cars or the low risk of jail time for possession of an illegal gun don’t explain what has changed in the last two years. One of the most perplexing statistics to come out of the police department is that while homicides are streaking toward an all-time high, non-fatal shootings are actually down over last year. Killings in Baltimore have become executions, brutal and close range. For the violent criminals, the situation is personal. For many of the city’s leaders, it has sometimes felt like it’s not. We have seen too much shrugging of the shoulders, too much of a sense that homicides are a problem of drug dealers killing each other and not something that profoundly affects the social fabric. In the past, our leaders have been a lot more outraged over a lot less. We need them to live and breathe this issue. We were glad to see Mayor Pugh announce her call to action yesterday. She needs to do it again today and tomorrow, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday until the crushing pace of homicides in this city abates.