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Will new approach to Baltimore crime fight build police legitimacy? | COMMENTARY

At the direction of Mayor Brandon Scott, the Baltimore Police Department is creating a Group Violence Reduction Unit, and 50 officers have applied to participate.
At the direction of Mayor Brandon Scott, the Baltimore Police Department is creating a Group Violence Reduction Unit, and 50 officers have applied to participate. (Amy Davis)

Some 50 current members of the Baltimore police force have applied to join a new Group Violence Reduction Unit, formed at Mayor Brandon Scott’s direction. Here’s what I take from that: A good number of sworn officers believe a new approach to law enforcement can reduce crime, change lives and build public confidence in their profession.

That’s probably too precious an outlook for people who think police are thoroughly awful. They will interpret the interest in the still-developing GVRU as cops looking for an opportunity to crack heads.

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But that’s not how GVRUs work in the many cities where they have been implemented with success over the last 30 years. The approach is about what criminologists call “focused deterrence.” It’s an intervention model. It calls for police officers, social workers, parole and probation agents, pastors and other community leaders to confront, face to face, the relatively small number of men who cause most of the violence in a city. They’re offered help to get out of the dreary cycle of criminality and warned of stiff punishment if they don’t.

It has been tried in Baltimore before — when Kurt Schmoke was mayor in the 1990s, later when Sheila Dixon was mayor and again when Stephanie Rawlings-Blake was in that office. In Dixon’s days, federal prosecutors joined with local authorities to stage a series of call-ins, where repeat offenders on parole or probation were called to meetings, warned about the penalties they could face for federal offenses and offered help “getting out of the game.” The effort was most effective between 2006 and 2012; murders went down 30%, shootings 40% and adult arrests 43%. The city had under 200 homicides in 2011, and that was the last year that happened.

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After a lapse in the effort, Rawlings-Blake summoned David Kennedy, the New York-based criminologist most identified with the strategy, to Baltimore for a restart. For a while, it worked. In the first year of operation, Kennedy reported an 80% drop in “group member-involved” homicides in the Western District.

But the program had problems; police commanders apparently didn’t understand how it worked, and not enough social services were offered and sustained. The 2015 Freddie Gray unrest didn’t help, either. So the program went away again, another Baltimore fail.

That experience pointed up a problem that left Baltimore’s former health commissioner, Dr. Peter Bielenson, shaking his head — a lack of consistency. “With each change of mayoralty, you lose oftentimes the better program because it wasn’t that mayor’s program,” Beilenson said. “Mayors want to do things that have a quick hit, that bring them positive reviews in the first two, three, four years.”

Scott might be thinking that — he’s a politician, after all — but he also knows there’s a good chance of success. Group violence intervention has worked in other cities and, as noted, it once contributed to reductions in violence here.

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The police department is already organizing the GVRU. But why are so many officers interested in it?

Maybe because they know it could work, and that it represents the new approach to policing that’s badly needed.

One of the things Kennedy and colleagues in the field talk about is “police legitimacy,” and how the interventionist approach can help build it. Community buy-in is huge. It’s a step toward establishing trust with police. Trust is essential to reducing violence. One of the reasons we have so much shooting and killing, Kennedy argues, is that too many people in communities with histories of bad policing don’t work with cops; they end up taking matters (and guns) into their own hands.

“Focused deterrence programs attempt to promote [police] legitimacy by ensuring that crime control efforts are focused on the safety and well-being of group members and others at high risk,” Kennedy and a fellow criminologist, Anthony Braga, wrote in a paper published last fall.

Focused deterrence, they say, can improve citizen perceptions of police through its tight focus on the “high-rate offenders” who cause most of the trouble and bloodshed in a community. Reductions in violent crime also go a long way toward building trust.

“However,” Kennedy and Braga wrote in the paper, published by Cambridge University Press, “the strategy’s most powerful impacts on citizen perceptions of police legitimacy might be achieved through its direct communications with offenders. … In the eyes of community members, there is an inherent fairness in offering identified offenders a choice and providing resources to support their transition away from violent behavior rather than simply arresting and prosecuting them.”

Still, the enforcement part remains clear; there are consequences for continued offending. But, at the same time, citizens and service providers promise help. The key is delivering on those promises, something that did not happen the last time Baltimore tried this.

I would think GVRU has considerable appeal to police officers who want to make a difference in Baltimore and in the public perception of their profession. The approach might even help with police recruitment.

Last week, as Scott rolled out his crime prevention plan, the federal judge overseeing the BPD’s consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice noted that, in the wake of George Floyd’s death, “police hiring nationally has gone into crisis.” At the same time, U.S. District Court Judge James K. Bredar said, the BPD is changing; he expects 2021, the fourth year of the consent decree, to be a “transitional year” for the department.

“This profession is hearing the cries and demands for a new approach,” Bredar said, “and it could encourage a wider swath of young people to take a second look at a career in law enforcement as the work and the profession are being re-imagined and redesigned in alignment with more contemporary thinking.”

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