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The 'war room'

We're not sure why it took halfway into the third month of a historic spike in Baltimore's violence, but we were glad to see the mayor, police commissioner, state's attorney, U.S. attorney and others stand together on Sunday to announce a new strategy to bring the shootings and killings under control. The approach, a 24/7 "war room" for police, prosecutors and federal agents to share intelligence and coordinate their efforts, isn't exactly novel — indeed, State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby was quite right to refer to it as a tried and true tactic — but that's not entirely the point. Eleven weeks after Freddie Gray's funeral and the associated riots, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's administration seems to have snapped out of its funk. Between Sunday's announcement and her decision last week to replace Anthony Batts as police commissioner, she seems finally to be treating the situation with the seriousness it deserves.

A score of people were shot over the weekend and at least seven killed, putting the city on a pace to exceed 300 murders by year's end, a level of violence not seen in Baltimore since the 1990s. The "war room" may not be the answer — indeed, many questions remain about how it will be different from existing or previous collaborations and intelligence operations. This isn't a new idea; It's not even the first time someone has called it a "war room" — former state's attorney Patricia Jessamy had one a decade ago in which prosecutors, probation agents and others would share information to make sure violent offenders didn't fall through the cracks. Local and federal officials have long collaborated on Project Exile, through which certain targeted offenders are prosecuted in federal courts, where they can receive tougher sentences. And former Gov. Martin O'Malley's administration partnered with the city on a variety of collaborative efforts, including the Violence Prevention Initiative, warrant task forces and the GunStat program.

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But even if this latest "war room" amounts to little more than repackaging and rebranding old ideas, it serves an important symbolic function. The community and rank and file officers both needed to see City Hall and the department's command staff show that they are treating the surge in violence with something more than business as usual. This is at least a first step in demonstrating that. The question is what other shifts in tactics and strategy will accompany it.

Interim Police Commissioner Kevin Davis has walked into a tough job, but we are encouraged so far by the new energy and focus he has brought to it. One of the first things he did after talking over was to address the members of the department's special investigations units with a promise to beef up their function and clarify their mission. Such units developed a bad reputation during the Frederick H. Bealefeld III era at police headquarters based on some bad actors who generated significant misconduct and brutality complaints. Mr. Batts de-emphasized them and instead shifted resources into the patrol division.

Appealing as the notion of cops working their beats may be, that's not necessarily the most effective strategy for the current circumstances. Mr. Davis says the department has intelligence suggesting that a substantial portion of the recent violence is tied to a small set of individuals and groups — the proverbial "bad guys with guns." Police are much more likely to catch them and build strong cases against them by devoting resources to investigative units than to cops cruising the streets and responding to service calls. Police and prosecutors need to start closing cases at a much higher rate, and Mr. Davis' efforts should help.

Mayor Rawlings-Blake says she replaced Mr. Batts because questions about his leadership had become a "distraction" to the crime fight. Indeed, concerns about what happened before and after Freddie Gray's death — both from the community and the rank and file — had taken the city's focus away from the violence raging on the streets. New leadership and new vigor were certainly needed, both in the police department and City Hall, and we hope it continues.

But the mayor also needs to recognize that the questions about the city's leadership during the riots and since aren't trivial, and they aren't going away. She is not going to completely solve the department's morale problem or restore the community's trust until she addresses them.

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