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Politics

Agency running Baltimore’s violence intervention strategy defends itself to City Council, increasingly impatient amid a violent year

The Baltimore office charged with implementing the city’s Group Violence Reduction Strategy defended itself in a letter delivered to the City Council on Friday, arguing the process of reversing violent trends in the city is not “overnight work.”

The Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement “has remained diligently focused on meeting the ambitious timelines and targets we established during our foundational year so that we are in a position to maintain course and ramp up our efforts moving forward,” said Shantay Jackson, MONSE’s director, in the letter made public Friday.

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Nearly six months into the implementation of a pilot program in the city’s Western District, GVRS, a centerpiece of Mayor Brandon Scott’s crime fighting strategy, aims to intercept those most vulnerable to becoming shooters or victims and offer them services to avoid becoming involved in crime.

MONSE, however, has been the target of increasing scrutiny in recent weeks from several members of Baltimore City Council who have grown increasingly impatient for solutions amid a violent year for the city, which has already seen 142 homicides.

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Last week, a group of six council members, led by Councilman Eric Costello, publicly called for new solutions to address the issue. Jackson’s agency, along with Baltimore Police and the State’s Attorney’s Office, were asked to provide information about the status of their efforts to combat violence, and police were given a demand to provide a new short-term crime fighting plan.

The council’s request, which came just ahead of budget talks for Scott’s proposed $4.1 billion spending plan, sets up a showdown over the city’s crime policy and the American Rescue Plan money that’s helping to fund it at a critical time to the city budget. Hearings on the proposed spending plan kicked off this week, and budgets for the three public safety agencies are due to be discussed on Monday and Tuesday.

In her response to council, Jackson said the agency has made significant progress in laying the GVRS program’s groundwork for future success, and has already begun to see some reductions in violence in the Western District pilot area, where non-fatal shootings and homicides are down 25%.

In the Baltimore Police Department’s response, also released to the public Friday, officials detailed its longer-term efforts to free up officers by hiring more civilian staff and plans to divert officers from non-emergency calls, including a new program that will use a third party to respond to non-serious and non-DUI-related vehicle collisions.

In the short term, the department said it plans to spend a portion of $8 million in new state funding to increase “officer visibility” through an authorized additional 300 hours of overtime for each district for each week, which has already launched in “specific areas in downtown.”

The police department is planning “enhanced warrant service,” targeting those wanted in violent crimes. The department also will use several existing task forces, which partner with federal and state agencies, that will “aggressively investigate cases involving the most violent drug organizations” in an attempt to “disrupt, dismantle, and eradicate the areas of illegal drug activity and associated violence.”

Several council members have expressed support for the Group Violence Reduction Strategy as a broader, non-law enforcement effort to prevent violence, but they’ve also raised questions about MONSE’s efforts thus far.

“There’s no rollout about how it’s working, how it’s not working,” said Councilman Robert Stokes, who backed Costello but also supports GVRS. Stokes said he would like to see more information on its progress.

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“I understand it’s something new, and there’s going to be some ways you have to critique it. But it needs to be rolled out in a sense that the community understands what the goals are, what the intentions are,” he said.

In its response Friday, MONSE officials said work is well underway to identify people most at risk for gun violence and work to get them “to step away from their plans to engage in violence.” The agency has been meeting weekly with Baltimore Police for “shooting reviews” to exchange information.

As of May 24, MONSE said it has completed 16 custom notifications, which includes using a group of “community moral voices, law enforcement, and/or service providers” who try to persuade individuals to not commit any violence and help them get resources including housing or job training. They said they aim to reach 75 program participants for fiscal year 2023.

Additionally, 31 people were criminally charged as a result of the strategy, and around another 40 were identified as “drivers of violence [who] are actively under investigation,” according to MONSE’s letter.

Organizers with Youth Advocate Programs, which is tasked with offering services to GVRS participants over age 24, said they’re acting promptly when the police department refers people to them for the program.

But convincing people to accept services isn’t always easy. Fred Fogg, national director for violence prevention, said those conversations often involve reminding people about the massive risks associated with earning an illegal income, including gun violence and prison. A consistent paycheck with benefits might mean a lower income, but also a lot less risk.

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Then there’s the trauma already burdening many of the people they come into contact with. Sometimes that includes a mistrust of service providers and law enforcement.

“When someone is 35 and still going through this, we have to unpack that, and we have a short time to do so because people are losing their lives,” said Craig Jernigan, regional director of Youth Advocate Programs. “By the time we come through the door, folks feel helpless. That piece right there has been the most challenging part.”

The latest demands from City Council aren’t the first time members have signaled their dissatisfaction with MONSE and GVRS. At a hearing earlier this year of the Public Safety and Government Operations Committee, Jackson told council members the program was off to a strong but methodical start. She said the plan all along was to start small and then scale up.

“You all may remember me saying this wasn’t gonna be a champagne bottle burst off the side of a cruise ship, but rather a very concerted, methodical effort around what it was going to take to get GVRS right this time for Baltimore,” she said at the meeting.

Councilman Mark Conway, chairman of the public safety committee who has also backed Costello, said GVRS can work but he doesn’t believe it is being implemented quickly enough.

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The councilman, who represents northeastern Baltimore, said he has been meeting with MONSE about how to speed that process up. He said he hopes to dig further during budget hearings.

“Knowing that GVRS could be a part of the solution, we need to move expeditiously to expand it,” Conway said. “We need to do that with the proper infrastructure, but I think this is a conversation we need to be having and not just presuming that it’s already happening because I’m not convinced that it is yet.”

Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research who co-chaired Scott’s public safety transition team, said he too hoped to see more progress.

“It’s hard not to be disappointed of where they are now,” he said.

He said many of the public safety transition team’s discussions focused on strategizing about bringing a GVRS program to Baltimore — a challenging endeavor in part because it would require finding community based organizations with the infrastructure and capacity to effectively connect with people at the highest risk of being involved with gun violence. It would also require a high level of coordination between those organizations, as well as with Baltimore police and prosecutors.

“This model is highly dependent upon collaboration and I wish Baltimore had a better track record in recent years,” Webster said. “Each entity has their responsibility that they have to come through on, and they all need to be accountable to one another.”

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West Baltimore activist Ray Kelly, who runs a nonprofit that advocates for increased civilian oversight of police, said he was contacted late last year to participate in a few custom notifications. His role was partly to reassure potential participants that they could trust the program. Often that means getting people to look beyond past negative experiences with law enforcement, he said.

“In concept, it seems like the right thing,” Kelly said. “It’s a proactive approach.”

Kelly was happy to participate, but he said organizers stopped contacting him in early February, leaving him unsure what was going on. Then he read Costello’s letter and became concerned the program was floundering.

Days after the letter was released, however, he received a phone call from an official in the mayor’s office asking him to become more involved again. Kelly said he hopes to see the program succeed.

But Webster also cautioned against writing off what can be an incredibly successful anti-violence strategy because of some apparent hiccups in the rollout.

“Councilman Costello was justified to demand action now, but people have to also understand that the conditions that created our high murder rate did not happen in one administration — they happened over generations,” he said.

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“While we need to treat this as a crisis, we also really need to think about longer-term issues we have to tackle — transportation, housing, education — all of those things really are critical for how Baltimore becomes a safer, thriving city.”


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