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Progress is a choice, Baltimore

There are many things that led to the riot that followed the tragic custodial death of Mr. Freddie Gray a year ago this spring. Among the causes: lack of jobs, rising unemployment, declining wages, economic desperation, unresponsive government, unprofessional and poorly supervised policing, and videos of black citizens being killed in North Charleston, Ferguson, the Bronx.

But high arrest levels in Baltimore was not one of those causes.

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In fact, arrest levels in Baltimore — after peaking in 2003 — had fallen to a 38-year low the year before Mr. Gray's tragic death. (It might have been longer than a 38 year low, but we only started keeping standard records 38 years ago.)

This year Baltimore is on track — once again — to have one of its highest numbers of homicides in over a decade. Shootings are up; confidence and trust are down.

In short, Americans are dying in record numbers on our city's streets. And if they were white rather than black, I doubt we'd accept inaction and excuses. If the perpetrators were from al Qaida rather than Aisquith Street, I am quite sure we would have a different response as a city.

The city deserves better. And for many years — almost every year — the city had been achieving better. With the combination of smarter law enforcement and more widely available drug treatment, we saved more and more lives every year. In fact, from 2000 to 2009, Baltimore achieved the greatest reduction in crime of any major city in America. In 2005, Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein brought the federal prosecutors office affirmatively into the mission of violent crime reduction. Then, with additional state cooperation and coordination beginning in 2007, the city achieved by 2011 its lowest homicide rate in decades.

For all of the hand-wringing that there is "nothing we can do about it," the truth is, actually, we can. We did. And we must again.

So what has changed more recently? Quite a few things in truth. And none of them were for the better when it comes to reducing crime.

Sadly in government there are often just two speeds — "on" and "off." And many things over the last couple of years have been turned off. Some of them are things our city government and our police department used to do. Some of them are things our state and its agencies used to do.

None of them should be a mystery to reporters, to editorial writers or to government officials.

Among them:

Comstat — The system of performance-managed policing, whereby every district comes before the police commissioner and his command staff on a rotating bi-weekly basis to share ever more effective tactics and strategies for reducing crime, was implemented here in Baltimore in the year 2000 after being pioneered in New York. This system of timely, immediate tracking of crime and rapid synchronized deployment of patrol and detectives, actually works. Once a month Comstat meetings is not the methodology of an effective Comstat system.

Sworn Strength — The number of sworn police officers in the Baltimore Police Department is at a 30-year low. With a force of 2,700 officers, there are today 400 fewer officers on the street than there were just seven years ago.

Competitive Pay — After a concerted effort to bring pay standards up to par with surrounding jurisdictions 10 years ago, pay for Baltimore police officers and their supervisory ranks of sergeants and lieutenants has slipped to the lowest in the region once again. This means not only fewer officers on the street, but fewer experienced supervisors on the street to supervise them.

The Violence Prevention Initiative — With a new and anti-Baltimore administration in Annapolis, the state has steadily abandoned many of the actions that used to help the Baltimore Police Department and other local departments reduce crime. One of these new collaborations was the statewide Violence Prevention Initiative — a super high level of supervision focused by Division of Parole and Probation on the most violent repeat offenders in the state. This was big data applied to the true threat risk of individual parolees and probationers. The integrity and accountability of this program has been so watered down and abandoned that it exists in name only.

Some of the other things switched into the "off position" are less obvious to the crime fight but directly affect the trust that's necessary between police officers and the communities they serve. All of them are within the power of the city and its police department to control and effectuate. Among them:

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Internal Affairs — An effective Internal Affairs Division must have sufficient sworn strength to follow-up immediately on complaints of police misconduct, discourtesy and excessive force. Interminable investigative backlogs and trial board backlogs greatly undermine police integrity efforts. Staffing of the BPD's Internal Affairs Division reached its peak in 2006 and has been declining ever since. There are many experienced policing experts who believe that 5 percent of any police department's staffing should be dedicated to Internal Affairs in order to properly protect the integrity of the police force.

Civilian Review — The Civilian Review Board serves a vitally important function as an independent oversight entity to which citizens can turn with trust and confidentiality. But appointments must always be filled with good and committed citizens, the board must function and meet, and it must have its own independent detectives. An effective Civilian Review Board must have the freedom and capacity to thoroughly investigate cases in a timely manner. The number and email for the Civilian Review Board must be advertised and given out at community meetings — especially in neighborhoods hardest hit by crime.

Reverse Integrity Stings — There was a time, not long ago, when the Internal Affairs Division conducted 100 reverse integrity stings per year to pro-actively safeguard the integrity of our police force. A reverse integrity sting is an undercover operation to test whether police officers do the right when they think no one is watching or do the wrong thing — like planting drugs on a citizen in order to clear a complaint. When an officer fails one of these tests, the political embarrassment is always outweighed by the increased confidence that citizens feel in knowing their government is serious about policing its police force.

Excessive Force and Discourtesy Complaints — These complaints were once tracked and shared with the City Council regularly and with the public. In addition, IADstat used to identify the police officers who were suddenly racking up discourtesy or excessive force complaints in great numbers over short periods of time. This early warning and follow-up system worked; officers drawing high numbers of fouls would be pulled from the street for retraining and other effective interventions or discipline when warranted. Every day we worked to improve police professionalism on the streets, as well as training and supervision. We drove police involved shootings to three of their four lowest years on modern record. As professionalism and supervision improved, so did trust between citizens and their police force.

Progress is a choice. The trust-building work at the heart of improved public safety collaborations requires constant and daily tending. And so, too, does the life-saving work of sustained violent crime reduction.

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All of us as Americans have inherited a legacy that we must acknowledge and address. It is the legacy of slavery — a legacy that has been intertwined with racial injustice and law enforcement from the first days of our country's colonization and founding.

We can pretend that there is nothing we can do about violent crime, police brutality and the racial injustice in its many forms, or we can learn the lessons of history and move forward.

At this time of leadership change in our city, we should review what has worked in years past and what has not. The time is always ripe to save lives.

Martin O'Malley is a former mayor of Baltimore and governor of Maryland. His email is Martin@martinomalley.com.

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