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Baltimore had its own version of Ceasefire before, it could again

Before walking away from Ceasefire again, Baltimore could DIY the anti-violence program

I offer a follow-up to my Sunday column to make a suggestion that might spare Baltimore the lousy, looming distinction of being one of the few cities – if not the only city – where Operation Ceasefire never got a chance to succeed.

If it stands, the shuttering of Ceasefire would mark the second failure of the renown anti-violence program here, and that means there’s something wrong with the city, not the program, says City Councilman Brandon Scott. I agree.

“We know the program works,” Scott said at a recent council hearing. “If the decision is to walk away from the program again, it will be a second time, and Baltimore will be the only city that Ceasefire does not work in. So that means we have to look at us, and not the program.”

In the 1990s, then-Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke invited Ceasefire’s creator, John Jay College criminologist David Kennedy, to bring the program to town. But political wrangling within law enforcement — the worst Kennedy had seen in his work with municipalities, according to his 2011 memoir, “Don’t Shoot” – led to its premature demise. Schmoke’s successor, Martin O’Malley, had no interest in the program.

Fifteen years later, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake recruited Kennedy and Ceasefire back to the city. But, despite some early success, the program had flaws in execution; its first director resigned within a year.

Some time during the last few months, city officials decided to drop Ceasefire.

“That program is being changed,” Kim Morton, Mayor Catherine Pugh’s chief of staff, told Scott and other council members at a June 2 budget hearing. “The police department is no longer interested in pursuing that.”

But Scott questioned the BPD's power to make such a call. “The mayor,” he said, “should be dictating to the police department and the police commissioner whether we continue the program or not.”

Scott also said that Ceasefire should be under the supervision of the health commissioner, and not the police commissioner.

In Kennedy’s design, Ceasefire is a comprehensive intervention program focused on repeat offenders who cause a disproportionate amount of the violence in the city. Central to the model is the ex-offender “call-in,” a face-to-face reality check with police, prosecutors, parole and probation agents. Felons invited to the meetings are warned about harsh consequences if they continue to offend, and they are given opportunities to exit the cycle of criminality. To work, the program needs the support of multiple agencies and community leaders.

“Walking away from [the] Ceasefire program again is unfathomable,” Scott said in a Sunday tweet. “It isn't that the program can't work. It’s never been given needed resources.”

I said this before and say it again: Ceasefire can work in Baltimore – with leadership that sees its value and a sustained collaboration of local agencies.

In fact, during the time Rod Rosenstein was the U.S. Attorney in Baltimore, federal and city prosecutors, along with police commanders and parole agents, staged a series of Ceasefire-like “call-ins” at police districts. This goes back 10 years, to the time Sheila Dixon was mayor and Leonard Hamm, then Fred Bealefeld served as police commissioners.

The program was most effective between 2006 and 2012. During that time, murders dropped by 30 percent, shootings by 40 percent and adult arrests by 43 percent. Homicides hit a three-decade low of 197 in 2011. The only extra cost for the program was a federal grant for the salary of an ex-offender who served as a mentor for those who participated.

Maybe Baltimore needs more staffing than that to make it work, but, based on Ceasefire’s track record elsewhere over the last 20 years – and the local version I just described – the mayor could probably convince a foundation to help with funding.

Pugh says she looks to "best practices" to run the city. Here's one.

A Ceasefire-like program should not be seen as some touchy-feely experiment the city can’t afford. It should be integral to solving the problem of “bad guys with guns” who are responsible for a lot of the violence and mayhem here. This is neither the time nor the place to be walking away from it, again.

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