Breaking the cycle of gun violence in Baltimore starts with constitutional policing | COMMENTARY

Homicide detectives and police academy trainees gather near the 900 block of Allendale Street where Larese Bowser, 42, was shot and killed on June 3. They will distribute flyers as they search for witnesses in the home invasion.
Homicide detectives and police academy trainees gather near the 900 block of Allendale Street where Larese Bowser, 42, was shot and killed on June 3. They will distribute flyers as they search for witnesses in the home invasion. (Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun)

Thursday evening, during the 8 o’clock hour, as I sat at home reading a new report about how to reduce gun violence in Baltimore, two men were shot to death on the west side of the city.

There’s nothing surprising about that; two men shot in Baltimore in any given hour is not unusual. I don’t even find it ironic that these deaths occurred while, a few miles away in the same city, I was reading a report titled, “Reducing Violence and Building Trust: Data to Guide Enforcement of Gun Laws in Baltimore,” from the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. It’s just more of the hard reality of our city: Good people keep trying to figure out how to make the bleeding stop while the bleeding never stops.


Five years after the surge in killings started, Baltimore still suffers through a plague of gun violence, with more than 300 homicides each year since 2015. Last year was horrible, with 348 homicides, giving our city the highest per capita rate among municipalities with at least 500,000 residents. This year, the rate of homicides is worse. And, as always, nine of 10 homicides are by gun.

Stopping this insanity seems futile, especially with an understaffed police department and a low rate of arrests in homicide cases.


But there are answers, and some of them are found in the Hopkins report, one of the most comprehensive I’ve read. I turn to it while pessimistic about seeing a less violent Baltimore, and in the midst of protests about racist policing, and with calls for defunding police departments — all of that.

The Hopkins research started a couple of years ago, well before the gruesome death-by-cop of George Floyd in Minneapolis. But the report provides an answer to those who want to tear down police departments and start over: There’s a way to effectively reduce gun violence while building trust between police and citizens.

The report found that, based on an extensive data dive, the police practice of “stop and frisk,” or “stop and search,” has minimal, if any, lasting effect on gun violence. In fact, the practice makes things worse, fomenting fear and mistrust of police while leaving “mental and physical harm to those who are unjustifiably searched.”

While “stop and frisk” was famously credited with reducing crime in New York City, the practice was eventually declared unconstitutional and discontinued. And yet the end of the practice did not spark a surge in violent crime there. In Chicago, on the other hand, violence increased after police stopped the practice, probably because of the city’s criminal gangs.

“The evidence is, indeed, mixed with respect to short-term effectiveness of stop and search as a tactic or strategy when that activity is not highly focused [on] individuals with a history of violence or places where shootings are highly concentrated,” says lead researcher Daniel Webster. “In Baltimore, we found that increasing arrests for illegal gun possession in a police post did not lead to fewer shootings the following month.”

On the other hand, Webster notes, a reduction in arrests in 2015 after the death of Freddie Gray led to the surge in gun violence that continues to this day. Chicago also had policing issues that made discerning a specific cause for that city’s increase in shootings difficult. Still, Webster says, the research clearly suggests a long-term negative effect from stop and search.

“Broad, racially-biased stop and search practices that are unjustified are harmful to establishing policing legitimacy and promoting community trust in police,” he says. “The costs of such practices far outweigh any short-term safety benefits.”

Far more effective, the Hopkins report says, would be small, district-level gun enforcement teams with officers trained in constitutional policing, under the command of a district supervisor and making decisions driven by intelligence from criminal investigations. And the city would likely reduce violence by returning to deterrence: Focusing on ex-offenders at risk of committing additional violence, meeting them face-to-face and offering them the social services they need to get out of the criminal cycle.

For this new report, the Hopkins researchers did something more police officials and politicians need to do: They listened to people who live in areas of the city where people get shot — East Baltimore and West Baltimore — and learned what they think, what they wanted to see. Here’s some of what came out of four focus groups and 200 in-person interviews with residents of East Baltimore and West Baltimore:

  • While 70% of residents worry about people illegally carrying guns in their neighborhoods, half of them think police make too many stops for gun searches, and two-thirds think they target the wrong people.
  • Nine out of 10 want the police to track and report outcomes from gun arrests — that is, how many cases end up being dismissed because of illegal searches, how many result in guilty pleas or convictions. The report recommends that the Baltimore State’s Attorney share this information with the police and public.

Baltimore should be ahead of the curve on all this. Hopkins has been offering wise advice for years. The city has been under a consent decree with the U.S. Justice Department to reform police practices. Certainly we can see by now that the ongoing violence is partly a result of broken trust: People who want safe neighborhoods don’t feel they can rely on the police yet or don’t believe that prosecutors will follow through and get jail time for gun law violators.

“Such breakdowns in trust,” the Hopkins reports says, “can make it hard to arrest and successfully prosecute individuals who commit violence; and this, in turn, can increase gun violence. Fear of being shot by individuals with a history of violence is a powerful motivator for carrying a firearm, perpetuating high rates of gun violence.”

Hopkins has summarized clearly, and with good evidence, what we know. The question is: Are we going to learn from it and break out of this vicious cycle?

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