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Calling Baltimore’s violence ‘beyond comprehension,’ Council group orders police response plan by budget time

A group of Baltimore City Council members is calling on the Baltimore Police Department to draft and submit a short-term crime plan to ease violence in the city as well as making other demands ahead of budget discussions next month.

In a letter to Police Commissioner Michael Harrison, Councilman Eric Costello, backed by Councilmembers Sharon Green Middleton, Mark Conway, Antonio Glover, Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer and Robert Stokes, labeled the current level of violence “beyond comprehension.”

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“Our residents and communities need relief, and they need it now,” wrote Costello, who chairs the City Council’s finance committee.

By June 3, the council group wants from police an inventory of police assets as well as plans to: coordinate with other law enforcement agencies, increase the use of civilians, use overtime pay, increase clearance rates and expand the use of license plate reader technology.

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During a news conference to announce the demands Thursday, the council members, who make up only a portion of the 15-member board, said they support much of Mayor Brandon Scott’s existing plans to stem crime in the city, but recent violence calls for urgency.

“People are calling our offices crying out,” said Middleton, council’s vice president. “We agree with the plans in place, but we need something now.”

A rash of shootings last week that left 10 people wounded in a single day has fueled growing outcry. Someone fired an estimated 60 rounds from an assault rifle during a lunchtime shooting Tuesday in East Baltimore, and a pregnant woman and her fiancé were shot and killed outside their home in the Barclay neighborhood Thursday night. In the early hours of Friday morning, a high school junior was killed at an after prom party.

The incidents are the latest in a city experiencing a staggering rate of gun violence in 2022. The police department has recorded 125 homicides — slightly more than this time last year — putting the city on track to exceed 300 homicides for the eighth year running. The city also has experienced 259 nonfatal shootings this year, compared to 243 at this time in 2021.

Councilmembers gathered at the news conference called the response to the violence “unacceptable.”

Case loads are too high for city detectives, the city’s crime lab is taking an unreasonable amount of time to process evidence and at least 17% of the city’s security camera network is currently out of operation, they said.

Middleton called for increases in foot patrols, while Stokes pleaded for intervention from Maryland State Police. Costello said such interventions would need to come from the city’s executive branch.

Scott, who has unveiled several police initiatives in the last several weeks to increase the use of civilian employees and reduce the use of sworn officers for less urgent calls, said in a statement late Thursday that he has been “working tirelessly to tackle this issue from all angles.”

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“Sustainably reducing violence isn’t easy, and despite what some people would have us believe, there is no quick fix or magic button that will stop people from shooting each other overnight,” the Democratic mayor said. “As the Council is keenly aware, I remain focused on doing everything in my power to address the violence that takes residents away from their families and loved ones and traumatizes communities throughout Baltimore.”

Speaking to City Council, he added: “I would only ask them to stay engaged in this critical work and match my urgency and effort in bringing real change for our residents.”

Hearings on Scott’s proposed $4.1 billion fiscal year 2023 budget begin later this month, and the letters delivered Thursday are the latest signal that council plans to mount an intense discussion of the spending plan. At a meeting of the Ways and Means Committee last week, Costello, its chairman, warned city budget officials that the council expects answers to numerous inquires and action on requests before budget hearings begin.

“We’re not going to move on the budget this year if his questions aren’t answered in a timely fashion,” Costello warned after Schleifer said a request for information from the Department of Public Works had languished for months.

Costello said Thursday he expects the mayor to be cooperative with council’s requests. He declined to say whether council plans to propose amendments to the police budget.

City law, which is set to change later this year, currently prohibits City Council from making additions to the budget. Scott has called for $560.4 million in police spending, a $5 million increase over the current year.

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“I am confident — we are all confident — that Mayor Scott is going to direct the police commissioner to comply with our request, and we look forward to reviewing that once it’s submitted,” Costello said.

The group of council members, which included five of the six chairs of the council’s committees, also made demands of State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby and the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement in separate letters Thursday.

The council members asked Mosby for information on staffing, specifically assistant state’s attorneys, as well as documentation of requests from the city’s $641 million American Rescue Plan allocation. Mosby’s husband, City Council President Nick Mosby, did not attend Thursday’s news conference.

A letter to Shantay Jackson, head of the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement, demanded information on the status of the Group Violence Reduction Strategy.

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The strategy, which hinges on the idea that authorities can stop violence if they intercept the most vulnerable to becoming shooters or victims, was tried in Baltimore during the late 1990s and in 2014 with little success. Officials have said they believe better interagency collaboration, dedicated resources and a united philosophy on how to solve gun violence will make the program a success on the third try.

The latest plan, being piloted in the police department’s Western District, calls for using street-level intelligence to identify rivalries among street gangs and groups driving the city’s violence. The plan then offers them a safe place to stay, addiction treatment, employment help or whatever is needed to keep them off the streets.

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In his letter, Costello noted that $13 million of a $50 million American Rescue Plan allocation to the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement, or MONSE, was earmarked for the Group Violence Reduction Strategy, or GVRS. The councilman took aim at a $1.2 million contract to the nonprofit Youth Advocates Program announced last year.

“Despite MONSE receiving over $13 million in federal ARPA funds and nearly $1 million from the local philanthropy community to support GVRS services, zero participants have been offered transitional employment, zero participants have received financial incentives to engage a life coach and three or fewer individuals received emergency relocation assistance,” Costello wrote. “At this pace, MONSE will fail to even get close to the target it set for itself of enrolling 125 participants in case management services in year one of GVRS.”

Costello asked MONSE for a “complete time frame for the effective rollout of GVRS in the Western District along with successful demonstration of proof of concept so that it may begin to be scaled citywide.”

The letter also requests a detailed plan for how the agency plans to spend its $50 million American Rescue Plan allocation and more details on maintenance of the city’s camera network.

Baltimore Sun Reporter Lea Skene contributed to this report.


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