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Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott’s crime plan calls for expansion of city violence intervention programs

Baltimore mayor Brandon Scott along with director Shantay Jackson shares the city's new comprehensive violence prevention plan.

Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott plans to nearly triple the number of the city’s violence intervention programs, currently offered by Safe Streets and others, and to reduce gun violence by 15% annually as part of the crime plan he’s unveiling Friday.

The plan, for which city officials have been gathering public input for months, calls for a coordinated approach to combat violence in the city over the next five years that would include participation from the city’s numerous agencies and various community partners in the city.

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Scott wants to “swing the pendulum back to the prevention space,” Shantay Jackson, director of the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement, told the Baltimore Sun’s editorial board Thursday. The plan, she said, targets factors that cause violence.

“It looks at Baltimore City environmentally,” she said. “It looks at economic status. It looks at employment and opportunities. It looks at all those things that contribute to violence in our city and seeks to root out those causes.”

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Baltimore has recorded 192 murders this year as of Thursday afternoon, 10 more than last year, and more than 300 murders each year since 2015.

Among the goals laid out in the 36-page plan is a “significant investment” in Baltimore’s violence intervention program that currently includes 10 Safe Streets sites as well as seven hospital-based partnerships, Roca and several other community organizations. Safe Streets employs “interrupters” to defuse potentially violent situations and connect city residents with services in targeted neighborhoods of the city.

Over the next five years, Scott hopes to add 20 new contracts to the program, relying on some of the city’s $640 million allocation from the American Rescue Plan as well as other federal funding to make it happen.

City officials said they are currently evaluating the existing Safe Streets program with an eye on how to scale it up incrementally and offer more complete services.

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“It’s no longer just good enough for them to intervene,” Scott said. “We need them, those credible messengers, to help shepherd those people they’re intervening with. How can we get them to a better point in their life?”

Scott’s plan also calls for the implementation of a group violence reduction strategy that would target a small number of people likely to be involved in violence or be the victim of violence and offer them support over a sustained period of time. At Scott’s direction, the Baltimore Police Department is creating a Group Violence Reduction Unit, and 50 officers within the department have applied to participate, officials said.

Jackson acknowledged Scott’s plan isn’t the first time Baltimore has attempted a group violence reduction strategy, including trying Operation Ceasefire twice.

“It didn’t work those times,” she said. “The political will wasn’t there.”

“The mayors didn’t have the courage to stick with something,” Scott added. “They were looking for an immediate solution to something that you actually need to dig down deep on.”

Scott also wants more emphasis on investigating gun traffickers and illegal gun purchases to reduce gun violence.

Scott’s plan, which he will publicly promote Friday via a series of three news conferences, also includes plans for community engagement and public reporting on its successes and failures. But it stops short of offering a price tag for its proposals, something Scott and his staff also were unable to estimate.

Sunny Schnitzer, deputy mayor for public safety, said the city will have the opportunity to leverage money it already receives from federal grant programs for some for the initiatives outlined in the plan.

“What we’ll say is that this switch in focus will force the city to really reprioritize tens of millions of dollars,” Scott added. “That means there are things that we do that aren’t working that we shouldn’t do. There are opportunities for us to grow into other programs, and we’re going to be looking to make significant changes to how we operate as well.”

Scott campaigned on a pledge to reform police spending in the city and during his time on City Council he led efforts efforts to cut $22 million from the city’s budget, mostly from police spending, in hopes of reallocating money to social programs like opening recreation centers and increasing trauma services. But Scott’s first budget as mayor actually increased spending on the department, although the budget did not fund any new programs.

Amid public scrutiny as the budget was considered, Scott said he remained committed to reforming police spending and urged patience.

Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Prevention & Policy, said he supports Scott’s plan and his intention to modernize the city’s violence intervention efforts.

“The program model Safe Streets uses was built in the 1990s. A lot has changed since then with gangs, with drugs,” Webster said. “Gangs used to be more cohesive organizations. You could work with leaders who saw it was in their interest to control violence.”

“Right now, they’re not as cohesive,” Webster added. “They’re on social media. They have smaller crews. Affiliations are much more fluid.”

As a result, hybrid models of intervention are more effective, Webster said, such as the one offered by Roca. Roca does more outreach, seeks to change people’s behaviors and connects them to services to address issues such as unemployment, he said.

“I’ve been touting to leaders in Baltimore you can’t treat community violence prevention like a demonstration project,” he said. “A handful of discreet programs in a city as large a Baltimore is not a strategy.

Ray Kelly, a West Baltimore resident and executive director of Citizens Policing Project, had measured expectations for Scott’s crime plan, which he acknowledged he has not yet read. Every new crime plan that includes modern initiatives can be considered “comprehensive,” Kelly said.

“Really they’re the same basic solutions with modern day language,” he said.

What Baltimore needs is sustained investment in the root issues that lead to criminal activity and the environments where it is prevalent, Kelly said. The American Rescue Plan money awarded to the city is an opportunity to finally do that, he said.

“The answers are in community, and they’ve been presented before,” he said. “Invest in those. No need to re-create the wheel. No need to translate to social media dialect. Invest in what we need to invest in.”

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