Amid national policing debate, Baltimore mayoral candidates focus on reform, drug treatment

Amid national policing debate, Baltimore mayoral candidates focus on reform, drug treatment
A policeman walks door-to-door, attempting to find any witnesses of a shooting near the rear of William S. Baer Elementary School in West Baltimore. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

Second in a series of occasional articles about issues in the Baltimore mayoral race.

After a year of record-breaking violence in Baltimore and amid nationwide debate about policing, the city's most prominent mayoral candidates are pledging to balance safety in the streets and police accountability, with promises to target "violent repeat offenders" while tightening administrative reins on misbehaving officers.


They are promoting crime-control policies grounded more in public health and economic theory than in policing, and focusing more on drug addicition recovery than on drug enforcement, with programs to hire ex-offenders and train youths for the job market.

Analysts say the candidates are trying to show they are keyed in not just to crime but also to its root causes — a stance born out of the unrest and rioting that followed the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray in April, the deep-seated distrust it exposed between police and the communities they serve, and the awareness it raised about the challenges that perpetuate poverty in some of Baltimore's most troubled neighborhoods.

"Since Freddie Gray and the uprising, people have a deeper understanding of the issues, which has helped sustain the balance [in the candidates' plans] between crime control and how we are doing our policing," said Nina Kasniunas, an associate professor of political science at Goucher College. "We have been educated. ... You can't just say, 'We're going to police and lock everybody up.'"

Lt. Gene Ryan, president of the the union that represents the city's rank-and-file officers, said the group plans to make an endorsement in the race in the middle of this month, after its election committee interviews candidates.

Matthew Crenson, emeritus professor of political science at the Johns Hopkins University, said the "key issue in this campaign is public order," in part because incumbent Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's decision not to seek re-election has been largely pegged to her inability to maintain such order during and after the unrest.

Candidates also understand that "the rest of the country is focused on Baltimore" and which direction it will take, Crenson said, and are shaping their crime platforms with that in mind.

The city recorded 344 homicides last year, the most per capita on record. But among the seven most prominent Democratic candidates — registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 10-to-1 in Baltimore — none has espoused the sort of tough-on-crime approach that helped Martin O'Malley win the mayoral the election in 1999, the last year there were more than 300 homicides.

"On one hand, you have police reform," Crenson said. "On the other, you have a bunch of measures designed to make it less likely that the police will have to be called in the first place" — such as proposals to stop arresting people for marijuana possesion and to direct addicts to treatment.

"You're making police more responsive to the community, but at the same time trying to distance police from the community altogether."

The candidates acknowledge similarities in their crime plans, and voters would be hard-pressed to find differences in several key areas. The candidates largely agree on increasing training for police officers, giving teeth to the Police Department's Civilian Review Board, challenging certain protections for officers under the Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights and implementing the department's body camera program.

They have similar proposals on increasing foot patrols, offering incentives to Baltimore police officers to live in the city and using data to identify trends in violence.

Other common ideas include increasing minimum-sentencing mandates for illegal gun possession, expanding the Ceasefire and Safe Streets anti-violence programs, replacing punishment with "restorative justice" programs for youths, providing 24-hour-a-day, on-demand drug treatment for addicts, and expunging criminal records to improve ex-offenders' job prospects.

The mayor appoints the police commissioner and oversees the department. The next mayor will have to decide whether to keep Commissioner Kevin Davis.

The candidates generally speak highly of Davis but have avoided committing to keep him. Several say they are watching his efforts unfold and will consider their Cabinet appointments carefully.


To distinguish themselves, candidates have pointed to their personal experiences.

Businessman David Warnock stresses an economic approach to reducing crime. He cites his years on the board of the Center for Urban Families and its focus on removing barriers to employment.

City Councilman Carl Stokes has promoted the importance of education and building a skilled workforce, themes he has touched on in past races. Councilman Nick Mosby speaks of rebuilding communities through public-private partnerships, demolishing vacant buildings, and addressing homelessness and housing issues such as lead paint.

Former Mayor Sheila Dixon, who has been leading in polls, says her crime strategy while in office was to target violent repeat offenders and those with guns, and it worked.

Crime fell during her administration, she says, because her crime strategy was clear, and police, prosecutors, parole and probation officials and other players in the criminal justice system all worked toward a common goal.

"You could ask the sergeant on the corner, 'What's the crime plan?' You could ask the lieutenant or major, 'What's the crime plan?' And they could tell you," she said.

Dixon resigned in 2010 as part of a plea deal after she was found guilty of embezzlement for using gift cards intended for needy children.

State Sen. Catherine Pugh, who helped lead the state's recent review of policing practices and draft a slate of related bills now before the General Assembly, said work has helped inform her on the concepts of 21st-century policing. She said she would incorporate national best practices in community policing and use her experience organizing neighborhoods to find solutions.

"It's not just a prescription for Baltimore, it's a prescription for the nation," she said.

Elizabeth Embry, chief of the state attorney general's criminal division — who observers have said has the most comprehensive crime plan — has suggested an end to arrests for marijuana possession. She stresses a need to reform the state's juvenile justice system and address how children in correctional facilities are educated.

Embry said she would take a "district-by-district" approach to crime, using her experience as a prosecutor and partnerships with state and federal law enforcement officials to target violent criminals, particularly those with guns.

"Guns are everywhere, and criminals feel very comfortable carrying guns on the street, and that is a change from past years," she said. "And I think it is in part due to a lack of effective focus on gun crimes and also in the courts."


DeRay Mckesson, a civil rights activist who has discussed police reform with President Barack Obama, has called for "just, fair, and effective" responses to crime — including training police in defusing conflicts and decriminalizing minor offenses.

"If the institution of policing isn't accountable, then the police will never be able to do their job well," Mckesson said.

He calls for addressing root causes of crime — he includes poor education, few job opportunities and addiction among them — and redistributing "an increasing portion of the police budget" to employment and education in high-crime neighborhoods.

Pugh, Embry and Mckesson have all called for an end to the war on drugs, though their approaches vary.

Only Mckesson's plan mentions the full-scale investigation of the Baltimore Police Department's "patterns and practices" that is being conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice. That investigation is expected to result in a sweeping set of recommendations this year that the city will negotiate and then have to implement under the watch of a federal monitor.

Jeffrey Ian Ross, a University of Baltimore criminologist, said the investigation will be a major factor in how the city handles crime for years to come.

Crenson said the Justice Department recommendations are likely to consume a sizeable portion of the city's budget — and not just as it relates to policing — and Baltimore voters should think about that when considering the candidates' platforms.

"If the Department of Justice comes in and tells us we have to spend a whole lot more money on police, on drug treatment programs, etc.," Crenson said, many of the candidates' proposals — from tax breaks to economic development projects — "may become impossible."