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Don’t forget policing in Baltimore public safety plan | COMMENTARY

Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott holds a news conference to announce the continuation of Covid restrictions in the city. Baltimore Health Commissioner Dr. Letitia Dzirasa is on left. March 12, 2021
Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott holds a news conference to announce the continuation of Covid restrictions in the city. Baltimore Health Commissioner Dr. Letitia Dzirasa is on left. March 12, 2021 (Barbara Haddock Taylor)

By now it’s clear the zero-tolerance, lock-them-up crime-fighting strategies of the past have done little to stop the violence in Baltimore, where murders have topped 300 for the past six years straight. Instead, they created a system where even low-level offenders cycled in and out of prison, saddled with criminal records that left no real hope of getting an honest job that would allow a different way of life. For many, crime became a career because they saw few other options. The strategies did little for policing either, creating an environment ripe for abuse and building a wedge between officers and the community, who ideally should see police as their protectors, not adversaries.

That’s why it is refreshing to see Mayor Brandon Scott’s violence prevention draft plan, released Monday, take a holistic approach to addressing crime, treating it as a primarily public health issue, rather than one of law enforcement. Baltimore City Commissioner of Health Letitia Dzirasa led the citywide task force to come up with the framework, which centers on multiple city agencies working together on the issue. A newly created Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement would coordinate what Mayor Scott called an “all-hands-on-deck approach to building a safer Baltimore.”

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Rather than a punitive approach to crime, the plan focuses on rehabilitation, prevention and intervention strategies. That means engaging city residents at the highest risk of being involved in gun violence before a shooting happens and creating a reentry council to help people once they leave prison. It also seeks to address the systemic issues that lead people to break the law in the first place. Create legitimate economic opportunities in communities, so young people won’t start peddling drugs. Keep kids in school, so they have better options in life. Steer juveniles who do end up in the juvenile justice system pipeline, to programs that lead them away from further trouble. As the mayor’s plan points out, historically, the city has over-invested in punitive approaches when it comes to young people, and in Baltimore, Black youth are overrepresented in the youth justice system. Address the trauma that residents develop just from the mere circumstance of living in violent neighborhoods.

We would just caution that the city not let the pendulum swing too far away from traditional policing. Certainly there are ways for police to do fewer of the duties that aren’t really crime-related, such as dealing with mental health crises. There are people in the mental health field much more qualified and better trained to talk someone down from a psychotic episode without pulling out a gun. That doesn’t mean we don’t want officers patrolling the streets. We would guess that residents still want police patrolling their neighborhoods, as well. They don’t want abusive and corrupt policing, but most people know that, when done right, policing keeps the city safe and encourages a mutual trust and cooperation among communities and law enforcement. That’s something the city direly needs for crime witnesses to feel comfortable coming forward, a critical component to solving cases and stopping more murders. There were 335 homicides in Baltimore last year. Gun violence is an epidemic in this city, and we need competent, collaborative policing to bring that to an end.

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A call for more equitable policing often gets translated to mean the caller is anti-police, but that is simply not the case. We recognize the important role they play. And while the Baltimore Police Department was part of the task force that helped develop Mayor’s Scott crime plan, in the final version of it, we would like to hear more about the police department’s role in the holistic strategy.

Mayor Scott has asked for the community’s views on his crime vision, and we hope residents give him an earful. He will hold a series of public sessions, and residents can also fill out a web-based survey as well. Crime is by far consistently one of the most pressing issues residents say the city grapples with. It causes people to move to the suburbs and hurts the image of the city. Too often residents say their voices aren’t heard on the issue, so now is their chance. We also hope the outreach allows for a little more chipping away of the walls of distrust between the community and police. When people are engaged in the process, they should feel more invested in the stakes.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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