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To stop the killings, Baltimore needs more data

As Baltimoreans seek to address the city’s out of control murder rate, they need more information as to what works and what does not. For example, there is considerable pressure for the Baltimore Police Department to put more police on the street in high crime areas, but the public has no information on the impact of X number of additional police on Y area for Z length of time on gun-related crime. Furthermore, it is unclear what these officers would otherwise be doing. For instance, are they homicide detectives? Do they investigate robberies, shootings or other violent crimes? Do they serve warrants?

What we do know is that the clearance rate for non-fatal shootings in Baltimore is less than 20 percent, and for murders, it hovers around 30 percent. Baltimore is well below the national clearance rate for murders, which is 60 percent, and even farther from where we were almost 20 years ago, when BPD reported a clearance rate for murder of 77 percent. We also know that the workload for detectives is one of the most critical factors that perpetuates the cycle of unsolved murders and that workloads are dramatically higher in Baltimore than in most other cities. Given current staffing at BPD, it is likely that the ratio of homicide cases to detectives is close to 10 to 1, rather than the recommended 5 to 1. In her book, “Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America,” Jill Leovy reported that because the clearance rate for shootings is so low in high poverty Los Angeles neighborhoods, residents resort to vigilante justice: “If the police won’t punish a shooter, then I will.”

Obviously, we don’t want vigilante justice — even though it appears that’s what we have. So how can we improve the clearance rate and imprison more killers? We can start by asking what information exists around effective strategies for solving murders and arresting shooters. Is the problem too few detectives? Or is it outdated investigative training, intelligence and tactics? Is it due to poor collaboration among other criminal justice partners? Is it because of a lack of internal communication? Is it because of the silence of witnesses? It could be all of those factors. We don’t know.

In 2016, the BPD received an outside evaluation of its homicide division. That report was never made public, and, therefore, we do not know what was found or recommended. We also do not know what, if anything, was done to implement the recommendations.

Today, amid our surge in violence and the fiscal crisis caused by rampant police overtime, there is pressure to put more cops on the street. But what should they be doing? Is it more effective to arrest a shooter or have an additional officer on the street responding to 911 calls? For this, we have an answer. After studying 911 dispatch calls in East Baltimore, former Baltimore police officer and now professor Peter Moskos concluded that “rapid police response does not prevent crime and has almost no effect on the odds that a criminal will be caught.” Everyone should read this report. It raises the question of whether unarmed civilian BPD employees should be answering 911 calls, who would only summon uniformed officers if necessary. With one million calls being made into 911 each year, BPD needs an efficient and effective response strategy.

Another question is whether it is more effective to have additional police officers serving warrants on chronic violent offenders rather than patrolling communities. Again, there are things we know and things we don’t know. We know there are over 40,000 unserved warrants. We know that the BPD prioritized these warrants to identify those to be served on chronic violent offenders. We do not know whether the service on this population is continuing, at what rate, and with what result. We also do not know if they are routinely re-prioritized as new warrants come in or whether they remain static. Questioning of relevant officials indicates that they have no data on the percentage of those served warrants who are subsequently incarcerated and for how long. Presumptively, once detained they are held without bail, but again we simply don’t know.

What we do know is that the Baltimore Police Department is understaffed. And we should all demand that that the staffing that is available be used in a manner that has the most impact on reducing violence.

Robert C. Embry Jr. is president of the Abell Foundation. His email is

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