Time to treat Baltimore's murder epidemic as a true disaster

Baltimore has seen the second-most homicides through the first four months of the year in its history, after a weekend that saw five more people killed.

Recently, I heard a dialogue on a local radio talk show that compared Baltimore's continuing spate of violence to that of an emergency. This suggests that the nation's emergency management doctrine might be a useful construct for addressing the city's unremitting violence. Upon reflection and given my past work at at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, I found this to be an interesting connection, especially given FEMA's denial of federal support to mitigate the cost of the Freddie Gray uprising. Perhaps developing a framework to address Baltimore's long-running epidemic of violence might be more useful to the city than the short-term effect of FEMA funds.

Our emergency preparedness doctrine establishes how the nation builds, delivers and sustains the capabilities needed to prevent, protect, respond to, mitigate against and recover from all hazards, natural or man-made. Similarly, capabilities can be identified for each mission as it relates to violence.


In FEMA parlance, prevention is the capability to avoid or stop an actual act of terrorism. While terrorism as a form of violence may not be the focus of prevention for Baltimore, eliminating the fear that reigns over our communities from interpersonal violence is an outcome that we seek. The relationship between education and social and economic progress and the risk of being a victim or perpetrator of violence is incontrovertible. Therefore, the long-term strategy for prevention of violence is to develop our youth by improving education and training outcomes which lead to greater participation in the legitimate workforce, higher incomes and greater adherence to society's norms.

As a tactical matter, there is much to be done to develop our youth. Youth development is the process of preparing young people to be successful, productive, caring and contributing adults. It involves many dimensions: academic, social, spiritual, physical, cultural and workforce development. Historically, organizations such as the YMCA, YWCA, Boys and Girls Clubs, 4H Clubs, Cub and Boy Scouts, Catholic Youth Centers, Baltimore Recreation Centers, Police Athletic League and other youth centers were well rooted in the cultural fabric of youth development. Some of these programs no longer exist, and those that do have insufficient capacity to address the development needs of youth at the scale of the challenge.

Nevertheless, Baltimore enjoys some exceptional youth development programs. However, few programs are integrated to get the synergism of what they do collectively. Standards do not exist that include a shared definition of youth development or that describe the interplay of social, academic and other dimensions of youth development. Few include methods for program interoperability and accountability and a system that includes quality management and continuous improvement.

Protection is the capability to safeguard the nation against all hazards. Given the nature and extent of violence in Baltimore, those activities may be the safeguards that help to create peace and tranquility in our neighborhoods and that sanction persons that don't. These activities mean reducing the availability of guns and imposing stiffer sentences for repeat offenders of gun possession. Baltimore police reported that since January 2016, 60 percent of those defendants found guilty of gun possession had more than half of their sentences suspended. Police must be present in communities walking the beat and promptly responding to calls so that citizens feel protected.

Perhaps the greatest factor leading to protection of our communities is Baltimore's planned community policing initiative demonstrated, in part, through the four "Transformation Zones" designed to provide concentrated city services to improve the quality of life of these under-served communities. While these zones will initially focus on providing enhanced city services, incorporating principles of community policing will do much to improve service and community relations. These principles include community partnerships, organizational transformation and problem-oriented policing. Incorporating these principles will likely help the community to identify the standards and practices for policing, provide the police department new ways to organize and manage personnel, instill trust and transparency and focus on the problems that the community defines. Police can move beyond traditional measures of performance such as response times, closure and crime rates to include community satisfaction measures.

Mitigation seeks to reduce the loss of life and property by lessening the impact of emergencies on affected communities. There is nothing more insidious than the role of gangs, guns and drugs in the nexus of violence. From strong arm robberies of dealers by "stick up boys" to setting up dealers by friends and associates, to turf wars and retaliatory violence, these circumstances may explain a large proportion of homicides where there is "no known motive or suspects."

A meaningful reduction in demand sometimes create voids in the marketplace which spurs competition among drug gangs and more violence. Police and paramedics are seldom the first to respond to a violent incident. Despite having a world-class emergency medical system in Shock Trauma, victims die during the precious time that it takes for medical response and citizens can be helpful by providing first aid to victims of violence. Previously, first aid training was provided to students as a means of provided aid to the injured.

According to FEMA doctrine, a response to an emergency is to save lives, protect property and provide basic needs of survivors. Recent examples of violence indicated that "petty beefs" can quickly turn into major altercations and death. Considering this fact, police responding to such altercations can provide citizens with their cell phone numbers or officers can re-contact combatants to ensure that disputes are resolved. In cases of domestic violence, police can provide transportation to alternative living arrangements while tempers cool, provide protection or probable cause for arrest. Given the profile of persons at risk of being killed or killing, police, Safe Streets and other concerned citizens can focus on these individuals to prevent future violence.

FEMA defines recovery from emergencies as developing a unified, flexible and collaborative approach to restore and revitalize the health, social and economic fabric of the affected community. The impact of acute and chronic violence over time can affect a community's sense of safety and security, a basic human need. Research shows that violence can impact the mental and emotional health of youth. Exposure to community violence is a risk factor for injury and death among adolescents. While communities sometimes spontaneously assemble to honor homicide victims or create memorials to help communities recover and grief counseling is provided to homicide victim's loved ones, more can be done to address the recovery needs of the entire community traumatized by violence. Art and other cultural programs can be developed to highlight the consequence and cure for violence, communities can develop advisory or other groups to address the recovery needs of the community, and faith-based institutions can provide peacemaking projects, or provide trained, volunteer grief counselors for citizens affected by violence regardless of their relationship to victims.

Like the challenge of violence reduction in Baltimore, FEMA doctrine recognizes that one entity cannot effectively address an emergency. It is a shared responsibility of the "whole community." There is a role for everyone, not just police, in eliminating violence. That includes individuals and families, businesses, faith-based and community organizations, nonprofit groups, schools and academia, media outlets and all levels of government, including state, local, tribal, territorial and federal partners. Individuals and families can model peaceful lifestyles, non-profit groups can provide services such as first aid training, schools can implement course work in violence prevention, faith-based communities can provide the spiritual sustenance for peace. The government in its strategic position can identify roles and responsibilities of partnering organizations, develop institutional arrangements to complement partners in achieving shared goals and provide material resources to fill gaps.

The work that needs to be done in Baltimore to reduce violence is complex and in need of leadership. The challenge is made more complex by the lack of a strategic plan or framework by which to understand the interdependencies of factors leading to violence, organizational roles and responsibilities, goals, objectives and gaps. Finally, an accountability structure needs to be established that allows transparency about progress in achieving the goals. While the framework for emergency management and disaster preparedness is not perfect, it can provide the structure to manage this crisis.


Marcus Pollock, Baltimore


The writer is a citizen member of the Maryland Police Training and Standards Commission.

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