Abell president: Demand accountability from Baltimore police, officials

“We do believe the machine we built can go further and decrease crime,” said Micheal Harrison. (Kevin Rector)

Baltimore faces many challenges, but I believe most Baltimoreans would agree that the city’s No. 1 challenge is its murder (and shooting) rate.

When the subject is raised many will answer that the high rate of violence is caused by poverty, so to address the violence, we must address the “root causes” of poverty: inadequate education, poor housing, non-existent jobs, racial discrimination, etc. This is true. But we must acknowledge that while the murder rate in Baltimore has spiked, these challenging “root causes,” while real and unacceptable, are no worse today than they were four years ago before our current spike began. The unemployment rate in the city is down, more vacant housing has been demolished or rehabilitated and the school graduation rate is up. Further, the ability of interventions in these areas to lower the crime rate, even if we can agree on what exactly we want these interventions to be, is long term. The violent crime rate must be reduced today.

Two men died overnight in Baltimore and police identified a 15-year-old as a recent homicide victim.

We must accept that violent crime is also a root cause of poverty. Indeed, violent crime drives the very unemployment, disinvestment, trauma and poor school performance we see. Violence is both an outcome of poverty and a cause of it. Thus, it is not a question of focusing either on “root causes” or on violent crime. Violent crime is a root cause – one that has dramatically worsened over the last four years.

The city has acted in the past to reduce violent crime by deploying a range of strategies and investing millions of dollars in them. Each mayor and police commissioner has put forward his or her own plan for stopping the violence. But missing from these conversations is the evidence base behind the plans and the accountability measures for determining (and transparently explaining) why the plans change.

Baltimore City Police Commissioner Michael Harrison released his crime plan on Thursday, July 18 at police headquarters. He was flanked by top city officials, including the mayor, state's attorney and City Council president.
Baltimore City Police Commissioner Michael Harrison released his crime plan on Thursday, July 18 at police headquarters. He was flanked by top city officials, including the mayor, state's attorney and City Council president. (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)

Thomas Abt, in his recent book “Bleeding Out,” recommends a specific evidence-based strategy. The first component, one validated by extensive research, is a variant of David Kennedy’s Operation Ceasefire program – calling in the most violent offenders and offering then to choose between help leaving crime or extensive jail time. This program has been tried in Baltimore, but the public has no idea why it was ended, if it worked, and if not, why not.

The Safe and Sound Campaign entered into a compact with the state to use Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) to reduce recidivism in the city. The program dramatically reduced recidivism. The state terminated the public safety compact with no report on its effectiveness or the reason for its termination. No elected official asked why. CBT is another one of the research-based recommendations in the Abt book.

Baltimore City State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby explains why her office declined to charge police officers in reviews of their use of force in three separate incidents.

The Police Department has over 40,000 unserved warrants. The state and the city agreed to focus on serving a portion of those warrants on the most violent persons on the list. This was done, but then the initiative was ended. How many were served? What happened to those served?

The city began a program to identify 10- to 14- year-old children who were at high risk for involvement in the criminal justice system, called Operation Safe Kids. It continued for a few years and was then terminated. The public was not told of its cost or its impact.

Richard S. Barnes, 50, was previously charged with first and second-degree rape in June, after a woman told police she had been raped in the Charles Village area by man she believed was a police officer.

Former Mayor Catherine Pugh began a focused crime strategy called the Violence Reduction Initiative. What was the impact? What was the cost?

I applaud Police Commissioner Michael Harrison’s release of a new crime plan, and like everyone in Baltimore, I hope it succeeds. We must continue to attack this issue with urgency, but the press and citizens also must demand accountability and transparency from the police and elected officials.

Robert C. Embry Jr. is president of the Abell Foundation. His email is embry@abell.org.

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