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Politics

After 2 years fighting crime and COVID, Baltimore mayor looks ahead without regrets: ‘We need to just grow on that’

In an inaugural address delivered outdoors on a brisk December day, Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott pledged to battle a pair of twin public health emergencies: violent crime and the coronavirus.

The pandemic, not even a year old, was surging following Thanksgiving 2020, foretelling a tumultuous year ahead. And Baltimore’s homicide rate had already topped 300 for a sixth consecutive year.

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Two years later, as Scott has passed the halfway point in his first four-year term, both of those priority problems persist — to differing degrees. The days of shuttered restaurants and public mask mandates appear to be behind the city, but vaccination rates for city residents against COVID-19 continue to lag.

The city’s homicide rate again topped the grim benchmark of 300 deaths in 2021 and 2022. And the first two weeks of 2023 were marred by a violent start, particularly for the city’s youth. Seven high school students were shot, with one multiple shooting robbing 16-year-old Deanta Dorsey of his life and prompting fresh calls for justice.

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Mayor Brandon Scott and Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison, answer questions Jan. 4, 2023, at the scene of multiple shooting at Edmondson Village shopping plaza.

Scott made the fight against violent crime a centerpiece of his mayoral campaign and his previous tenure on City Council, championing comprehensive solutions in place of traditional police funding.

In pursuit of holistic approaches, he reintroduced the Group Violence Reduction Strategy, a program tried twice by previous mayors to steer at-risk youths away from crime and support them with counseling, job placement and housing. The city recorded decreases in crime in the Baltimore Police Department’s Western District in 2022 during a pilot of the program, statistics that Scott’s administration says are likely connected.

But Baltimore ended the year with 334 homicides, a figure comparable to 2021′s total. Officials suggested the city might have seen a 5% increase in 2022′s homicide rate if not for the introduction of the pilot.

David Jaros, faculty director of the University of Baltimore School of Law’s Center for Criminal Justice Reform, said there remains room for improvement in Scott’s crime prevention strategy, but the rhetoric during the first half of his administration has been positive.

Expecting any mayor to show a significant impact on crime over a two-year period, however, would be naive, Jaros said.

“The best hope is he can do an effective job of persuading the public that the long-term investment is the best way to create a safer Baltimore in the long run,” Jaros said.

The first half of Scott’s term also included the roll out of an ambitious crime plan calling for the expansion of violence intervention programs, offered through Safe Streets and other providers. Thus far, that work has involved consolidating Safe Streets sites under two nonprofits and adding hospital-based intervention sites to expand services for shooting victims.

When Scott announced his crime plan, he coupled it with a lofty goal: reduce gun violence by 15% annually, a pledge he hasn’t been able to fulfill.

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As a councilman, the Democrat championed cuts to police funding, leading supporters to expect a shrinking police budget when he became mayor. Instead, funding for traditional policing increased, most substantially in fiscal year 2022 to cover health insurance and pensions, drawing ire from some backers.

Mayor Brandon Scott gets a COVID vaccination outside Baltimore City Community College from the city health commissioner, Dr. Letitia Dzirasa.

Ray Kelly, a West Baltimore resident and executive director of Citizens Policing Project, said he would give the mayor a B so far. Kelly is pleased with Scott’s holistic approach and feels like that tack is working. But the administration has relied too much on law enforcement, he said.

“With GVRS, we’re poised and structured to be proactive, getting in front of crime, creating opportunities. But when the media gives that recognition, it’s because GVRS was associated with this arrest or that arrest,” he said. “It makes it more complicated for the community.”

Kelly said he can’t fault the mayor for setting big goals, particularly his aspirational 15% reduction in violent crime, but officials may want to come back to the table and reassess that target, he said.

“It’s like swimming upstream in a river of rocks,” Kelly said of the challenges that lie ahead for Scott.

In an interview with The Baltimore Sun, Scott rated his administration’s approach to public safety a B-minus, saying his team has built the infrastructure for long-term change. The mayor said it will be incumbent upon him over the next two years, as he works through a 2024 reelection campaign, to communicate those strategies to residents.

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“When I tell folks about GVRS — where we’re giving people the opportunity, but if they don’t take it, then come down with the consequences — people understand that,” he said. “We have a start and now we need to just grow on that and tell that story.”

The campaign isn’t the only hurdle ahead. City Council will gain power to reallocate money in the city’s budget for the first time this year, altering the power dynamic in a city where mayors are strong. Those changes come as Scott continues to battle staffing challenges from sanitation workers to his executive team. The city administrator and public works director have departed in the last two years, among others.

However, there’s been stability at the head of the agencies addressing Scott’s top two priorities. The city has retained Police Commissioner Michael Harrison and the health commissioner, Dr. Letitia Dzirasa. Both have been on the job nearly four years.

The mayor’s approach to the city’s other public health challenge, the coronavirus, was also controversial. Just a day after taking office in 2020, Scott made the call to close the city’s restaurants to diners and capped the number of people allowed to go into other businesses.

Many iterations of those orders followed, each time stricter than those Republican Gov. Larry Hogan imposed statewide. Baltimore’s indoor mask mandate remained in place until March 2022, well after surrounding jurisdictions lifted theirs. City Hall did not reopen until April, months after most local governments in the U.S. Masking is still required inside during public meetings in the building.

Scott’s decisions were criticized, particularly by members of the business community, who were already reeling from nearly a year of financial hardship from the pandemic by the time he was sworn in. A restaurant trade group unsuccessfully sued Baltimore and other municipalities, challenging bans on indoor dining. Strip club owners had more success when they sued in March 2021, alleging Scott discriminated against them when he eased restrictions for restaurants but kept adult entertainment venues closed. The city agreed to reopen the clubs days later.

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Brandon Scott was sworn in December 2020 as Baltimore's 52nd mayor by city clerk Marilyn Bentley as his parents, Donna and Alvin Scott, look on during a small ceremony in the City Hall rotunda.

Neil Sehgal, a professor of health policy and management at the University of Maryland School of Public Health, said he views Scott’s approach as pragmatic, rather than strict. Baltimore has lagged on vaccinations — only 75% of the city’s residents are fully vaccinated, compared to more than 90% in Maryland counties such as Montgomery. That made an extended masking mandate and business closures necessary in the city, Sehgal said.

“What Mayor Scott has done is defaulted to the protective,” he said. “From a public health perspective, it’s certainly the right thing to do.”

Sehgal acknowledged the difficulty of Scott’s decisions to enact restrictions more stringent than the state’s and applauded the city for making COVID decisions with an equity lens. Baltimore’s restrictions improved equity for residents who lacked the opportunity to work from home or easy access to tests for the disease, he said.

Additionally, Baltimore’s contact tracing program recruited members of communities to trace the path of potential exposure through groups of people like themselves, he said.

“It’s really hard to think about when you’re not in the thick of it, but those decisions have strong equity implications,” Sehgal said.

Scott gave himself an A-minus for his performance on the pandemic and said he wouldn’t reverse course on any COVID-related decisions if he had them to make again.

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“I’m a beacon for racist and crazy messages,” Scott said “I feel like I haven’t done my job if someone doesn’t call me the N-word online or say that they’re going to kill me. The messages we received during that time don’t bother me at all. It was well worth it to keep my residents alive.”

Joy Mason, left, 26, and Iyana Hall, 21, dancers at Ritz Cabaret Gentlemen's Club, co-organized a 2021 protest by adult entertainment workers outside City Hall in Baltimore over Mayor Brandon Scott's decision not to reopen those establishments due to COVID-19.

While the pandemic was an enormous challenge for Scott and other leaders, it has also presented a unique opportunity: the distribution of federal American Rescue Plan funds. Baltimore received $641 million from the program designed to assist jurisdictions recover.

Scott allocated funds in broad issue-based swathes: $50 million for violence prevention, $100 million for housing programs, $75 million for homelessness interventions. He’s created an office to distribute the money, judging applicants on a rubric weighted for a project’s equity.

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The approach has frustrated some members of the council. Some would prefer to see more money directed toward infrastructure or alleviating quality-of-life issues, such as returning from every-other-week recycling collection to weekly pickups.

Democratic Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer of Northwest Baltimore said he doesn’t object to the issues Scott has focused on, but questions the priorities within each pot. Schleifer took particular issue with the Clean Corps program, which received almost $15 million. The program directs funding to community groups to empty trash cans and clean alleys.

Schleifer said the money could have been better invested in expanding the city’s capacity to collect trash and raising wages for sanitation employees.

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“The mayor is saying, ‘I believe we should spend $15 million to help clean up neighborhoods that see a lot of trash.’ I don’t disagree,” Schleifer said. “I would take that money and say, ‘I’m not going to put a Band-Aid on this for two years. I want to spend it to address the issue moving forward.’”

Democratic Comptroller Bill Henry likened the infusion of cash from ARP to money that flowed into Baltimore during Democratic Mayor William Donald Schaefer’s 15-year administration, which began in 1971, after riots impacted the city. The money has the potential to be a boon, but it’s almost a “no-win scenario politically,” Henry said.

“You can either spread the money around to lots of different groups with lots of agendas and try to accomplish lots of little, good things, which he’s kind of done,” Henry said. But that approach leaves people upset that you haven’t accomplished anything transformative, he said.

“If you do two or three big transformational things, then all the people out there doing good stuff ... are going to be like, ‘You had $600 million and you didn’t do anything for me,’” Henry added. “There’s no good answer for that.”


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