This came to me while reading a recent crime-reduction plan for Baltimore: What we want are sales of heroin and other illegal drugs without the deadly violence that goes with them; on-demand drug addiction treatment for those who want it; and a legitimate job for those willing to leave the drug trade.
It’s not perfection, but, all things considered, it’s probably the best we can hope for.
Congress is not going to legalize the sale of heroin or cocaine any time soon, something that theoretically would create legit markets and stop the violence that accompanies the current commerce in drugs.
So, given that reality, how does Baltimore, with its high demand for illegal drugs, reduce violence in 2020 and beyond?
“You are not going to remove the drug trade,” Daniel Webster, the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, told me two years ago. “The idea that you can lower violence by curtailing the drug trade is foolhardy.”
Webster’s team had just concluded a deep analysis of Baltimore police data. It showed arrests of dealers on drug corners having no lasting effect on gun violence. In fact, disrupting drug markets caused chaos that led to more gunfire, the study found.
Webster said Baltimore would be better off with a narrower focus on those engaged in violence — that is, targeting what the city’s last successful police commissioner called “bad guys with guns,” the relatively small number of repeat offenders connected to a disproportionate amount of violence.
“It means you’re not going to allow people engaged in violence to be in the drug trade,” Webster said.
So, separate them out. Target them. Send police into violent neighborhoods focused on illegal firearms and people with a history of gun offenses.
Police Commissioner Michael Harrison already has patrol officers assigned to areas with a history of shootings and a special unit targeting the 25 most violent drug-trafficking organizations in the city.
But there’s another concept, proven effective in several other cities, that would make the overall strategy holistic and more effective in the long term.
In his proposals for crime reduction, Baltimore City Council President Brandon Scott, a candidate for mayor in April’s Democratic primary election, makes “guns and violent repeat offenders” his top priority. But, along with various enforcement strategies, he lists direct intervention with ex-offenders who are most likely to commit new crimes, something I raised in a column last week.
“Under my leadership,” Scott states, “we will identify violent criminal networks and remove them from our neighborhoods through consistent, targeted pressure.”
But then he adds this: “We must bring more credible mentors into this work, strengthen partnerships with the re-entry community, provide people with real opportunities to turn their lives around, and better connect resources with people who need them most.
“Reducing gun violence will require us to focus our resources and offer real alternatives to a life of crime,” Scott says. “In the past, Baltimore had some success reducing violence using a similar approach, but did not invest enough in creating true opportunities that had the potential to change conditions.”
Scott is talking about what’s known in criminology as “group violence intervention.” And he knows his history.
The strategy, based on a model developed by a widely respected criminologist at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, had two lives in Baltimore.
More than a decade ago, the U.S. attorney, working with state and local agencies, conducted a regular series of “call-in” sessions with men on parole or probation, a central piece of the intervention model.
The first “call-in” I observed was held in the Western District police station. Police brass, city and federal prosecutors, and staffers from parole and probation were there. A small group of ex-offenders were warned about penalties if they committed more crimes and offered help with housing, education and job placement by the police department's "Get Out of the Game" unit.
The program was in place during a period when shootings dropped significantly and during the last year, 2011, when Baltimore’s homicide count landed below 200.
Under the formal heading of “Ceasefire,” the program came back a few years later during the mayoralty of Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. But it failed because of poor execution, lack of support from police commanders and lack of follow-through on social services for those who were offered help.
By then, Scott was chairman of the city council’s public safety committee. “Walking away from [the] Ceasefire program again is unfathomable,” he said at the time. “It isn't that the program can't work. It's never been given needed resources.”
Scott believed the program should have been better supported by the mayor and administered by the health department.
So I should not have been surprised to see “group violence reduction strategy” at the very top of his 23-page crime-reduction plan. And Scott points to New Orleans, Harrison’s former post, as one of the cities that had success with the Ceasefire model.
“There were statistically significant reductions in overall homicide, firearm-related homicide, gang member-involved homicide, and firearm assault,” a U.S. Department of Justice study found. “New Orleans showed significantly decreased homicide rates after the program was implemented.”
Latest Dan Rodricks
That’s just page one of Brandon Scott’s crime-reduction plan. I’ll have more on it in upcoming columns. For now, I give him props for wanting to try something that worked before — not just threatening more arrests, but offering people who cause a lot of Baltimore’s misery a way out of it.