Mayor Catherine Pugh believes we must combat Baltimore’s “out of control” crime by addressing the systemic problems of poor education, limited economic opportunities and disparities in the physical environment that underlie Baltimore’s violence. Gov. Larry Hogan says that what Ms. Pugh is talking about does not constitute a plan to reduce the crime that is terrorizing our neighborhoods every day. He says we need to take steps that will get violent, repeat offenders off the streets immediately and keep them off.
They’re both right.
We will never fully escape from Baltimore’s cycle of violence without addressing the long-term, structural issues Mayor Pugh has focused on, but the city and state have consistently failed to do so. On the same day as Governor Hogan’s announcement, The Sun’s Yvonne Wenger reported on the failure of the city and state to secure the expansion of Boston’s well regarded Roca program — an intensive, multi-year intervention for troubled young people that steers them into productive employment. Mr. Hogan’s office says it is still considering Mayor Pugh’s request to provide funding for it, but it may be too late. Roca is run by a Baltimore native, and both the Abell and Weinberg foundations were ready to commit money to bring it here, but the organization wound up deciding to start a new program in New York instead because of questions about the level of commitment from the governor’s office. We need to be able to tackle long-term solutions to violence with the same intensity we do immediate crises.
Meanwhile, though Mayor Pugh is declaring progress based on new steps her administration has taken to address crime, Governor Hogan is right that we need more urgency around the violence happening here and now. We have questions about some elements of the plan he announced — analyses of the available data suggest that the statistic about suspended sentences Mr. Hogan repeatedly borrows from Police Commissioner Kevin Davis to hammer city judges for giving a “slap on the wrist” to gun offenders in Baltimore grossly oversimplifies a complicated situation, and the devil is most assuredly in the details when it comes to his proposals for a “truth in sentencing” statute. But the meat of the crime plan the governor announced this week represents a return to several highly effective practices the state engaged in to help fight Baltimore violence when Martin O’Malley was governor and Sheila Dixon was mayor, including the use of state law enforcement to supplement Baltimore police officers where appropriate, more intensive coordination between state parole and probation agents and the city, state and federal warrant sweeps and the like. All of those things require focused and consistent management from a gubernatorial administration that views it as a top priority, and we certainly hope, at the end of a third year of 300-plus Baltimore homicides, Governor Hogan is ready to provide it.
What’s worrisome, though, is that neither the mayor nor any other city officials chose to attend Mr. Hogan’s announcement. Mr. Hogan said he has spoken with Mayor Pugh about his plans several times recently, and although he repeated his criticism that the mayor lacks a discernible plan to reduce crime immediately, he also said he believes she and Commissioner Davis are “working very hard to address these issues.” But even if the lack of a joint announcement was nothing more than a product of election year politics, momentary peevishness or a simple scheduling snafu, the fact remains that in order for the initiatives Mr. Hogan outlined to work, there needs to be an extraordinary degree of cooperation between the city and state. It’s not just that we can’t afford a rift, we need hand-in-glove coordination.
But the elephant in the room is the effectiveness of the Baltimore Police Department. State and federal partnerships can help, but it is the men and women of the city police who will determine whether the fever of violence breaks. The department is reeling from the aftereffects of the 2015 riots, the failed prosecution of the officers involved in Freddie Gray’s arrest, the scathing Justice Department report on the department’s civil rights violations, an ever-widening corruption scandal involving one of its most elite units and the continued inability to solve the killing of a beloved homicide detective. Whether officers are consciously “taking a knee,” as some have argued, or simply suffering from low morale and confusion about their role, the fact remains that the rank and file need clear leadership about what it means to police aggressively and constitutionally, and they need the full support of the city’s elected officials for that approach. Mayor Pugh needs to make sure they get it.