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Baltimore mayor’s violence prevention plan needs resources, commitment, coordination | COMMENTARY

Crime reduction strategies are discussed at the barbershop level as Mayor Brandon Scott gets a touchup at Antonio‘s hair design in Brooklyn with Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison last Friday. (Justin Fenton/Baltimore Sun).
Crime reduction strategies are discussed at the barbershop level as Mayor Brandon Scott gets a touchup at Antonio‘s hair design in Brooklyn with Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison last Friday. (Justin Fenton/Baltimore Sun). (Justin Fenton / Baltimore Sun)

First, the good news. There are many worthwhile ideas contained in Mayor Brandon Scott’s “Baltimore City Comprehensive Violence Prevention Plan,” the 33-page document released last week. Anyone who genuinely cares about the future of the city should at least take some time to review the strategies mentioned in the five-year blueprint, as well as the expectation of greater community outreach and measured progress. Many proposals — such as providing more help and counseling for the victims of violence, investing in alternatives to youth incarceration and seeking opportunities for conflict mediation — have been promoted before. This does not make them any less worthwhile. What any reader will quickly appreciate is that violence prevention is a complex problem requiring a nuanced view of crime and policing.

Yet, here’s the bad. As worthwhile as many of these ideas may be — particularly an expectation that the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services will be producing far more comprehensive plans for transitioning released inmates back into their communities — the plan does not attempt even in the vaguest way to estimate what all these reforms may cost and how they will be financed in the future.

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In a meeting last week with The Sun’s editorial board, Mayor Scott acknowledged the budget would be in the “tens of millions of dollars.” The exact price is difficult to nail down, as it could change as time progresses, and it’s likely other expenses of city government will have to be trimmed along the way. This is not unreasonable given the importance of the crime-reduction mission. But even the mayor acknowledges that one of the chief problems in the past with other mayors is that Baltimore has not fully invested or even stuck with programs, like the earlier Operation Ceasefire, which sought to focus direct outreach on the most violent offenders.

Why not? Often, it comes down to money. It’s one thing to find room in the city budget for a one-year pilot program; it’s quite another to commit to a long-term citywide strategy where social workers, mental health professionals and other outreach workers have to be consistently paid. While we expect President Joe Biden’s selection of Baltimore as one of 14 U.S. cities targeted for gun violence reduction to bring additional funding to the city for that purpose through the American Rescue Plan, there are too many details that remain fuzzy. (We are pleased to note, however, that already Mayor Scott says he has put more into his version of Ceasefire, known as Group Violence Reduction Strategy, than his predecessors.)

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Let’s be candid: The current state of city government does not inspire great confidence. This is not necessarily Mr. Scott’s fault. He took office as mayor just last December. The COVID-19 pandemic has made matters worse. But when city government has proven itself unable to pick up recycling or keep its own buildings open or remove graffiti from public spaces or collect curbside litter in a timely manner, it’s fair to wonder if City Hall is capable of systemic public safety reform. Nor is it clear whether everyone is on the same page. Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby’s choice in March to no longer prosecute certain low-level offenses, for example, lacked a plan for how the city would deal with drug offenders or sex workers, instead — a component that businesses in particular are interested in as such activity takes place outside their doors. Will such changes be better coordinated among local, state and federal authorities in the future? One certainly hopes so.

Thus far, reaction to the plan has been generally positive. This might be because it represents an attempt to at least produce a mission statement about Baltimore crime reduction, which has been sorely lacking in the past. There are just so many years of 300-plus homicides this city can bear. But the lack of criticism may also reflect the plan’s absence of certain detail, especially about the hard choices ahead. For example, how exactly will progress be measured, when?

On page 8, the plan says the city aims to “sustainably reduce gun violence (fatal and non-fatal shootings) by 15 percent per year,” which will be measured by the reduction in gun violence. While it’s unclear where the figure came from and, consequently, how real it is, we can work with that. It’s a concrete measure. So let’s start the clock now. Using figures from a July 21 Baltimore Sun story showing 190 homicides and 380 nonfatal shootings so far this year, that means next July 21, we should expect 162 homicides and 323 nonfatal shootings — or less — for the same period in 2022.

If you’d prefer to see what that means for a calendar year and the city’s violence rate, The Sun’s data analytics expert, Steve Earley, crunched some numbers. The current total of shootings and homicides puts the city on pace to end 2021 with 305 homicides and 686 nonfatal shootings. If both gun homicides and nonfatal shootings fell by 15% a year each year through 2026, the last year of the plan would end with 135 gun homicides and 304 nonfatal shootings. This would put Baltimore’s 2026 homicide rate somewhere between 22 and 25 homicides per 100,000 residents, depending upon whether gun homicides are the only kind of homicides we see (low end) or if other murderous means are also employed (high end). As Mr. Earley points out, Baltimore hasn’t seen a rate that low since the early ’80s. Based on current homicide rates for U.S. cities, however, it would still place Baltimore in or near the top 10 deadliest cities.

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It would nevertheless be a remarkable turnaround. Baltimore homicides have dropped by 15% or more only once since 1977, according to Mr. Earley’s analysis, when numbers fell to 234 in 2008, from 282 a year earlier. And the only sustained decrease we’ve seen since then is when figures fell four years in a row, from 1999 to 2002. Clearly, Mr. Scott’s team has its work cut out for them.

The other measure noted in the strategic plan is squishier: the community’s perception of safety and trust. That’s a big category, and it encompasses more than gun violence. It takes into account resident relationships with police, thefts and robberies, neglected streets, interactions with panhandlers or squeegee window washers and much more. How will efforts to address all this be coordinated? The expectation of cooperation across agencies is high, but there’s not much of a track record to suggest success.

Mayor Scott has insisted that reducing violent crime in Baltimore is his highest priority and that he’s ready to address the challenge of coordination, so it makes sense that he’s taken this step forward in giving people some concept of where he wants the city to be. To be fair, it’s obviously a work in progress. And at least it takes the conversation beyond the brain-numbing simplicity of whether police should be “defunded” that dominates the national debate. As a starting point, it is reasonable. So are the broad concepts and the focus on violence prevention over police and number of arrests. But we’re going to have to see a lot more detail on every level before we can have much confidence that Mr. Scott is moving Baltimore in a better direction on violent crime.

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The city is struggling just to manage the day to day, with police just last week asking for help from up to 100 federal agents. They would work “side by side with police officers to help fight violent crime,” Baltimore police Commissioner Michael Harrison said during a quarterly consent decree hearing Thursday. The Baltimore Police Department has 327 officer vacancies.

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So, yes, we question whether Baltimore has the resources, the will and the leadership to pull this prevention plan off. We hope it does, but we are not certain — at least not yet.

Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.

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