I don’t have the benefit of a poll to support this, but I am pretty confident that the vast majority of my fellow Baltimoreans would say the most serious issue facing the city is the insane level of violent crime.
This is an easy call. You just have to talk to people. You’re bound to hear a story about a crime — maybe a son or nephew killed during the horrendous surge of violence that started in 2015, maybe someone who was assaulted on the street or a friend who was the victim of a carjacking.
This will likely be the fifth consecutive year of 300-plus homicides, with 295 killings at this writing, nearly 1,000 people shot, and still six weeks to go in 2019. We are in the worst slide of civic confidence and pride since the 1990s, when we had a full decade of 300-plus homicide years, a significant loss of population and listless leadership.
The next primary election is about six months away, in April, and Baltimore voters will get to choose a mayor. We will either keep the current one or choose from other candidates. Barring some supernatural force melting all the guns and the cold hearts that do the killing, crime will be the top issue. With this column, I start an examination of each candidate’s ideas on combating crime.
First up is Thiru Vignarajah, a former federal and city prosecutor and deputy attorney general who made an unsuccessful bid for Baltimore state’s attorney in 2018. Vignarajah is a bright, thoughtful and public-spirited attorney. He offers several new ideas in support of a bold pledge, should voters elect him: If he can’t get the annual homicide count below 200 within four years, he won’t run for a second term.
Here are some elements of Vignarajah’s crime plan:
- Order a major investigation of gangs and other drug organizations in the city’s 12 most violent neighborhoods. Vignarajah says the goal of the investigation would be the arrests of dozens of suspects by April 2021, a sweep that would reduce the chances of a surge of summer violence like those of recent years. “I picked a date for that, April 2021, because I want the people of this city to know there’s a real sense of urgency about this,” Vignarajah says. “If I could do it by April 2020 I would, but there’s an election first.”
- Create a deputy mayor for public safety. “The reason we pledge that is to signal to the public the preeminence of this issue within City Hall,” Vignarajah says. This new deputy would coordinate the crime fight among city agencies — housing, social services, juvenile service — so that neighborhoods most harmed by crime will have a holistic recovery from it.
- Establish a public advocate to “ensure that policing satisfies community expectations and constitutional standards, a post that will be filled by a respected community activist and civil rights leader.”
- Put $10 million into a diversion program for adult and juvenile offenders who agree, as a condition of probation, to enroll in skills training and job placement. Vignarajah calls this initiative the “Court to Career” program and he rolled it out with the support of Ravens linebacker Matthew Judon.
- Get a $5 million Second Chance Act grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to fund a program to support dozens of Baltimore churches that help ex-offenders adjust to life after prison.
- Deploy the much-debated surveillance airplane program of Ohio-based Persistent Surveillance Systems to track suspects in violent crimes. Vignarajah says the city should limit the surveillance to investigations of homicides, shootings and carjackings, require police to obtain a warrant to get video footage and establish a civilian oversight board to keep eyes on the program. He says he has confidence the system can help detectives crack cases.
- Along with that, Vignarajah wants to add 10,000 private cameras to the city’s network by offering $100 rebates to homeowners and business owners who install cloud-based security cameras and register them with police.
- Find private funds to clear the backlog of untested burglary crime-scene evidence because fingerprints and DNA from burglary investigations often lead to perpetrators of more serious crimes.
- Recruit another 600 police officers for a “more diverse, local and professional police force” by establishing a “college cadet” program to recruit 100 to 150 graduating seniors each year from local universities. Vignarajah thinks he can improve police recruitment by lifting “arbitrary eligibility restrictions” that keep some young adults from becoming sworn officers.
- Redeploy more than 90 school resource officers from their posts inside public schools to perform foot patrols during the day in the neighborhoods around their schools.
- Until recruitment improves, he wants the city to hire private security officers in “limited, site-specific contexts to ensure adequate coverage of business districts and public events.” This, Vignarajah says, will free up detectives who have been assigned to such duties on weekends.
“Some of these will make a big difference, some will make a measurable difference, but all of them are things that are rooted in a just and effective way of actually driving toward results,” Vignarajah says. “You’re going to measure me based on whether the murder rate comes down, and that’s the way you should. If I don’t have the murders below 200, I won’t run again. And that’s not meant to create some artificial goal. It’s to give the public a clear sense that I intend to be held accountable by my own goals.”