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Baltimore is trying a holistic approach to homicides. Will it work? | COMMENTARY

Karl Anderson, 39, of Baltimore has been arrested and charged with the murder of Bernard Richardson Monday morning, the 300th person murdered in Baltimore this year. Police say Anderson fatally stabbed Richardson during an altercation.
Karl Anderson, 39, of Baltimore has been arrested and charged with the murder of Bernard Richardson Monday morning, the 300th person murdered in Baltimore this year. Police say Anderson fatally stabbed Richardson during an altercation. (Baltimore Police)

Baltimore looks to be headed toward a slight reduction in homicides this year over last, when 348 lives were taken. The city has already seen a decline in most other crimes, including armed robberies and nonfatal shootings, as the pandemic has kept more people at home rather than out for criminals to target. For most cities this would be a reason for comfort, but that is not the case in a place that has, despite the slowdown, topped 300 homicides — for the sixth year in a row. When there are this many murders, small dips don’t make people feel much safer.

At a rate of just under a homicide a day, Baltimore is on pace to end 2020 with around 335 murders. It’s an appalling number, but if it comes to pass, it will represent a 4% drop and an improvement, nonetheless. Across the country this year, homicides rose 28% in the first nine months — 110% in Milwaukee, to 141 homicides; 85% in Minneapolis, to 61 murders; and 79% in Louisville, to 125 homicides. The reasons for the increases are varied: Police have pulled back amid protests over their policing, budgets have been cut because of the pandemic, people are tense, the drug trade has been disrupted.

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All of those cities still had lower numbers at that point than Baltimore, however, and they still do. Here, we haven’t risen, we’ve simply remained steady — a hollow victory.

There is room for hope, however. The city is embarking on a holistic approach to homicides that has the potential to result in institutional change over the long haul by disrupting the culture of violence. The idea is provide support to the most at-risk men, those over the age of 25 who are responsible for most of the gun violence, and teach them to resolve conflict without a gun and give them a path to a better life by connecting to them to community groups and services including skills training, housing assistance and substance abuse treatment — whatever it is that is keeping them from being productive members of society. They could even be relocated if temptations are too strong in their old neighborhoods. Murderers and the most hard-core violent offenders will still face arrest and prosecution and be held accountable.

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“It doesn’t mean we are going to be soft on crime,” said Police Commissioner Michael Harrison. “We have to build the infrastructure to attack the culture to change how people make those decisions. Police deployment strategies alone won’t do it.”

The new Group Violence Reduction Strategy uses a focused deterrent model and represents a collaboration among several city agencies, including the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, the Baltimore Police Department and the Office of the State’s Attorney. It builds off of the work already being done by Roca and the Safe Streets programs in the city, and is a model that’s been talked about for years in different forms. City officials promise that the effort is more coordinated than before, however, and say that will make the difference. The Board of Estimates approved more than $600,000 in funding for the initiative last week — on top of many millions already spent through the years.

It will take a citywide, multipronged effort to stem homicides. Baltimore has learned the hard way that a one-dimensional, lock-’em-up strategy that doesn’t address the root causes of crime — poverty, structural racism and lack of investment in certain communities — won’t stop the cycle of violence. Police and prosecutors from the state’s attorney’s office, which says it has deployed more resources to addressing violent crime as it has stopped prosecuting some more minor offenses, plan to work together from special centers to look for crime patterns. And we hope it yields results, not more finger pointing between those two groups over who’s to blame for the perpetually high homicide rate.

And, of course, other work must continue: building community trust, protecting witnesses, recruiting quality cadets and so on. We have no illusions that this effort alone will solve the problem. It is one step in a very long journey.

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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.

Editor’s note: This editorial was updated to correct the amount of funding the Board of Estimates approved for a new violent crime strategy. The mayor’s office initially provided incorrect information. The Sun regrets the error.

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