Addressing Baltimore's violence

The drum beat of murders in Baltimore over the past year is heartbreaking: 150 days, 144 victims. Yet we hear little discussion and fewer ideas from the mayor, the City Council or our state legislators for how to bring the violence down. Instead, they're debating whether to fund the Safe Streets program for $1.5 million.

Let's look at the numbers. Taken individually, every homicide in this city is a tragedy. Taken collectively, the homicides form an alarming pattern. Baltimore is seeing one of the worst surges of violence in the United States. To put things in perspective, we have had roughly 50 percent more murders than New York City — a city 14 times as large. And the violence begets further violence: Aggravated assault, robbery and carjacking are correlated with the homicide rate and increasing sharply.

In the face of this crisis, the city's response has been muted at best. As the Baltimore Sun recently reported, the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice, which devises crimes strategies, is all but defunct. The Baltimore Police Department has the smallest sworn force in the last decade. And now the mayor's budget may not fund the Safe Streets program, run by the Baltimore City Health Department.

The Safe Streets program employs community residents as "violence interrupters" who monitor neighborhood conflict and defuse potentially fatal fights. Daniel Webster from Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research has documented that the program has had a measurable impact on murder rates, with reductions of up to 56 percent in specific neighborhoods. Yes, the city budget is limited, but the program can save dozens of lives. We can't afford not to fund Safe Streets.

Rather than fighting over Safe Streets, the mayor, the City Council and our Maryland state legislators should be thinking bigger and debating how to meaningfully address the alarming growth and scale of violence. In the long-run, that means improving Baltimore's education system, expanding job opportunities and addressing housing and public health issues. But in the short-run, it means identifying creative strategies that can start to quell the crime wave.

Those ideas are all around us. Over the past month, I have had dozens of informal conversations around town about the violence and heard hundreds of common-sense proposals related to rebuilding community trust in our legal institutions, improving police department operations, and reducing youth violence.

Take community trust. The lack of it in our city police department and court system means that many people don't want to call the cops, don't want to cooperate with investigations, and are more willing to take matters of justice into their own hands. Without some level of community trust, policing and prosecuting are impossible. A recent consent decree reached with the U.S. Department of Justice will help address these trust issues. In the meantime, the police department could hold reconciliation meetings between police officers and community residents to discuss past incidents and air grievances or team up officers with community organizers to better understand neighborhoods — and in the process identify violent offenders and potential victims.

Another area where the city needs to focus is making the police department more efficient. We can start by investing in the people themselves — for example, by asking the state of Maryland to fund a special training academy for the department's mid-level management and by putting more resources into recruiting talent into the department. Unlike most major metropolitan police departments, the Baltimore Police Department is one of the only major forces in the U.S. whose patrol cars don't have on-board computers. That means police officers spend thousands of hours writing out reports that then have to be re-typed, with data errors and omissions every step of the way. We can fix that. When it comes to youth violence, we could expand the use of community mediation, community courts and diversion programs for adolescents to reduce repeat offenses. We could also take a cue from Safe Streets and try basing violence interrupters in city schools.

These are only a few of the ideas I have heard. There are no doubt others. It is the job of our city and state officials to encourage these conversations, to look for big ideas and to experiment. As Franklin Roosevelt once said, "It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly, and try another. But above all, try something." It is well past time to try something here.

Nate Loewentheil (nate.loewentheil@gmail.com) is a Baltimore native living on Patterson Park. Most recently, he served under President Obama as the Director of the White House Taskforce for Baltimore City.

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