Following recent public outcry from City Council members about increasingly brazen gun violence in Baltimore, Police Commissioner Michael Harrison defended his department while acknowledging persistent challenges — including dire staffing shortages and officer morale issues — during a contentious budget hearing that lasted about seven hours Tuesday night.
“I am absolutely disgusted with the state of public safety in this city,” Councilman Eric Costello said to start the discussion. “The police department plays a role in that.”
His remark prefaced a wide-ranging discussion that often veered into the minute details of crime and policing in Baltimore but also raised big questions about how to reform a disgraced department while curbing rampant gun violence and rebuilding public trust.
The hearing came a few weeks after Costello sent a letter to Harrison, calling the recent violence “beyond comprehension” and demanding a short-term crime plan, which department leaders released last week.
The plan includes increased use of overtime — an additional 300 hours per week in each district — to create a more visible police presence in high-crime areas. Officials also pledged to ramp up efforts to serve more outstanding arrest warrants and target “the most violent drug organizations.”
Alongside those efforts, the proposed $4.1 billion city budget includes some changes to department operations and a $5 million increase in police spending to $560.4 million for the fiscal year starting July 1.
The police department stands to receive the second-largest portion of city funds among all agencies, behind only the Department of Public Works.
The city’s public safety spending already has been scrutinized this year. Some members of the public who attended two annual taxpayers nights lobbied for cutting $100 million from the police budget.
They called for a larger investment in social services to address the root causes of crime, such as mental health care, substance abuse treatment and public schools. Police are not the answer, argued advocates, citing the recent Gun Trace Task Force scandal.
To address police staffing shortages, the department’s spending plan calls for eliminating 30 vacant sworn officer positions and replacing them with 35 civilians who would help investigate some cases by tracking down leads and searching databases. It also seeks to add nine officers to staff the new Group Violence Reduction Strategy, which uses a “focused deterrence” model to identify people most likely to become involved in gun violence and give them a choice between support services and increased attention from law enforcement.
Despite those changes, Costello said the department needs to do more in the immediate future.
Harrison, however, pushed back on the idea that his agency needs to act with more urgency to address violent crime and save lives.
“Let me set this straight right here and right now,” he said. “Our sense of urgency is set to the maximum and it stays there. It never ever turns off. … So please do not ever confuse our lack of showing panic with a belief that we somehow lack the same amount of urgency.”
Less than two hours into the budget hearing, police leaders and council members received word that four young men had been shot in one incident in Northeast Baltimore. Two of the victims died. Police later said they were sitting outside a home in the 5500 block of Plainfield Avenue when an unknown gunman opened fire. Three others were shot about an hour later, also in Northeast Baltimore.
The shootings illustrate a troubling trend that has prompted some of the recent outcry from public officials: more brash displays of gun violence sometimes targeting multiple victims.
Council members repeatedly referenced some of those recent cases, including two teenagers shot outside Harborplace downtown on a busy Saturday night over Memorial Day weekend after a gunman opened fire into a crowd. That same week, an 83-year-old woman was struck by a stray bullet while lying in bed. Weeks earlier, a pregnant woman and her fiancé were killed outside their home and a high school junior was shot to death after his prom.
West Baltimore’s Carrollton Ridge neighborhood has experienced three deadly shootings within the past week, leaving residents desperate for more help addressing a host of underlying causes, including open air drug markets and a staggering concentration of blighted properties.
During the budget hearing, Councilman Mark Conway noted the latest mass shooting Tuesday evening. He said the stakes are incredibly high for ongoing efforts to improve policing in Baltimore.
“This is really important,” he said. “We have to get this right. We don’t have a choice.”
The discussion, which lasted long into the night, focused little on the actual numbers in the proposed budget, but officials discussed its changes to department operations at length.
Eliminating some vacant sworn officer positions and replacing them with civilian investigators could help the staffing crisis significantly, officials said. Such investigators will handle low-level crimes, internal affairs complaints and cold cases.
Department leaders touted that upcoming shift toward civilianization, citing increased difficulty recruiting sworn officers, a trend reflected at other major law enforcement agencies nationwide. Officials said Baltimore Police already have received 560 applications for the 35 new civilian positions.
Meanwhile, the department has 2,262 sworn officers, leaving almost 400 vacancies, Harrison said. Of those sworn officers, only 1,873 are considered available to work in full capacity. The rest are trainees, out for medical issues or serving suspensions for disciplinary reasons or pending administrative investigations.
“We need more detectives, we need more cameras, more vehicles, more training and … better cooperation from witnesses and surviving victims,” Harrison responded to a question from Council President Nick Mosby about the homicide clearance rate.
In addition to the civilian hires, Harrison touted his SMART Policing plan, which focuses on improving efficiency by sending non-police to some non-emergency calls and taking more reports via phone, among other changes.
The budget plan also includes funding for nine officer positions to staff the Group Violence Reduction Strategy, a centerpiece of Mayor Brandon Scott’s approach to gun violence.
The GVRS program was deployed on a pilot basis in the Western District in January and some council members recently have expressed concern about its rollout being too slow. Baltimore officials have tried the approach twice in the past with little success, but other cities have linked it to significant decreases in violence.
In addition to his letter to Harrison last month, Costello sent another to the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement, which oversees the GVRS program. He argued the program was failing to make adequate progress.
City officials said outreach workers had offered support services to 21 people so far in the Western District. Those services could include counseling, job training and other resources.
During a hearing Monday night for MONSE, Costello asked when the city can expect to see a reduction in crime as a result of the strategy.
Agency director Shantay Jackson said there already has been a notable reduction in violence in the Western District — including a 25% reduction in nonfatal shootings. But, she said, “I think it would be premature of me to speculate at this point in the year when we’re going to realize sustained reductions.”
Councilman Robert Stokes, who represents East Baltimore, expressed exasperation during Tuesday’s hearing that his district seems to get less attention despite an alarming rate of violence.
“People are steadily dying every day,” he said. “Come to East Baltimore and see what happens.”
He also pushed Harrison on how the department deals with open air drug markets, a source of massive frustration to many residents, Stokes said.
Harrison replied that officers “go after drug dealers on a daily basis,” but he said getting officers to engage with members of the public remains a challenge.
“We want them out of the cars,” he said. “I hear that complaint everywhere I go.”
Morale is a real issue, Harrison said, especially since some officers fear one mistake could end their careers amid increased scrutiny of police nationwide.
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He also said that increased police presence and officer visibility can only do so much to deter crime. For example, the Inner Harbor shooting unfolded despite there being about 20 officers in the area under a new deployment strategy.
“We’re seeing people commit crimes in our presence,” he said.
Costello, who serves as budget chairman, demanded more action. He grilled Harrison on whether the commissioner had requested support from various federal and state law enforcement agencies that work with Baltimore Police, including the FBI, ATF, DEA and Maryland State Police.
Harrison insisted he has asked repeatedly for whatever resources those agencies can provide.
Costello said he would refuse to approve the city budget until Harrison provides written documentation of those requests and the responses he receives.
Tuesday was the final day of a weeklong budget hearing process and the City Council has until five days before the start of the next fiscal year on July 1 to approve a budget plan. Council members can make cuts but cannot reallocate or add any money.
“I will not move this budget for the entire city of Baltimore until I have that in writing,” Costello said. “I want to make that explicitly clear to everyone.”