On the day I spoke with mayoral candidate Thiru Vignarajah about his plan for reducing violent crime in Baltimore, the city’s homicide count for the year was 297. As of this writing, the count is 309, with more than a month to go in 2019.
In a conference room at DLA Piper’s downtown law offices in the Transamerica Tower, Vignarajah held his smart phone so I could see him scroll through a list of the 600-plus homicides of 2019 and 2018. It was to make a point: He wants to cut the murders in half. If Baltimoreans elect him mayor in 2020, he pledges to get the annual count below 200 or not seek re-election.
Vignarajah, a former federal and city prosecutor, is a Democrat in a city where winning the party’s primary is considered tantamount to winning the general election. If victorious in the April 2020 primary, he says he will start implementing his violence-reduction plan almost immediately.
How do you cut homicides by a third or more while the Baltimore Police Department is understaffed and under a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice to make reforms?
We were down to 197 homicides (in 2011). It wasn’t that long ago. But it feels like it was forever-ago. … The consent decree is the latest in a trend, where we blame things that can’t fire back. For a time it was fashionable to criticize the judges, saying, ‘Oh the judges are being too lenient,’ when I think empirically that is plainly not true. Now, because the consent decree has been there for a minute, it’s easy to say the consent decree is the reason. But we had 300-plus murders before the consent decree. In 2015, we were not under the decree, and in 2016 we had not implemented it.
“None of the things in my plan get anywhere near close to violating the consent decree. We are not talking about mass arrests or stop-and-frisk or zero tolerance policies. We are talking about fewer, smarter, better cases. The clear evidence of the years when Baltimore was bringing murders down was that fewer arrests were correlated with fewer homicides because we weren’t diverting resources to nickel-and-dime arrests. We were focusing on more serious cases against more serious violent offenders.
You support deploying the camera-plane from Persistent Surveillance System. What gives you confidence that it can work?
By itself, it’s not strong, but coupled with ground cameras, it can be. [With constant aerial surveillance], when a murder happens, we get to see the suspect walking, then crossing a street, then racing away. Detectives know almost exactly what time the murder happens, right? So, you overlay the ground cameras, and now you know that [the suspect] was under Camera 52 at 2:21 pm, and you can see that, at 2:27 pm, he was under camera 49, and then from 2:30 to 2:35 he was congregating under camera 101. So the detectives go directly to each of those cameras; they get two minutes of footage and they watch it. Juries need concrete, razzle-dazzle evidence like this. Cameras don’t lie, is what juries will tell you.
I prosecuted Frank Richardson and Davon McCoy. They carjacked a federal employee on a weekday afternoon [in 2011], and a traffic helicopter caught a lot of the carjacking on tape. Capt. Roy Taylor [of WBAL-TV] shouted out the coordinates of the car as it zipped around town. We presented the evidence at trial. All the jury saw was the car. But just as [the suspects] were bailing out at the end of the police chase, there was a ground camera, right where they had bailed out. We saw the doors open and the two jump out. A jury was able to see the beginning of that chase, the end of that chase. Coupling it with the [helicopter video] they saw the full story.’
You say police would only use the aerial surveillance for homicides, shootings and carjackings, and they would have to obtain a warrant to get video.
Right. Those seem to me to be cases where this kind of technology would be particularly powerful in front of a jury. You get to see the carjacking, the route they take. And there’s a way you can do this and survive constitutional scrutiny.
Your violence-reduction plan specifies police making major arrests in April 2021. How can you schedule such a thing now?
If I have the privilege of being elected, I will win the [Democratic] primary on April 28. You’ve got a window that other mayor-elects have squandered. We can go to the police commissioner and say, ‘Look, I think you’ve done a terrific job. I’m likely to be your next mayor. Here are the kinds of things that I want to talk about.’ You know that [over several months] you can build the kind of rock-solid, multi-defendant gang cases that the feds do, that the Attorney General’s office now does, that we did when I was chief of major investigations [of the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office]. In my last year, we did 12 multi-defendant indictments in an office of nine prosecutors.
The idea of having April 2021 as a marker is [because] of violent summers. Instead of doing [a major investigation] in response to a violent summer, let’s do it in anticipation of that surge of summer violence. Now, you are talking about arresting the most violent shooters, killers and gang leaders in the 12 deadliest neighborhoods on the eve of summer; they are off the streets.
It’s going be harder to get murders down from 175 to 150 than it is to get it from 350 to 175, and that’s because so much of what we’re talking about is common sense stuff that can be done quickly. So why April 2021? I want my city to know there’s a real sense of urgency.