Since before he took office, Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott has advocated for a collaborative, holistic approach to public safety — sending some 911 calls to crisis counselors instead of cops, rethinking how much money is spent on police, and a fresh, data-driven analysis of where in the city officers work.
It’s the kind of approach that takes careful thought and community consensus to implement. But as the mayor of five months is finding, it can feel like there’s little time to make it happen.
As of Monday, homicides were up about 17% compared to last year, though a lull in killings followed, according to Baltimore Police Department data. And a number of crimes have made eyebrow-raising headlines of late: five children younger than 17 shot within a week in March, a visitor from Israel killed Monday during a robbery, a melee at a gathering Sunday in Carroll Park that left one man fatally shot and three others wounded.
Some community leaders remain receptive to Scott’s message — even sympathetic to the systemic problems he inherited. But with deadly violence ongoing, they say they want action, not just words, from the new mayor.
“There is no honeymoon period for elected officials in Baltimore City,” said Mark Washington, head of the Coldstream Homestead Montebello Community Corp. in East Baltimore.
The violence so far this year is proving to be an early test for Scott, a former City Council president turned mayor, who has long spoken out on the need to reform public safety.
In an interview this week with The Baltimore Sun, Scott said his approach to public safety has been inaccurately “pigeonholed” as a long-term strategy. He cited recent warrant sweeps and an increase in this year’s homicide clearance rate to 47% as evidence of his focus on immediate public safety needs.
But he also said he remains unsatisfied. The heavy lifting to deal with violence in Baltimore is not “overnight work,” he said. The development of a group violence reduction strategy is underway, and the city is preparing to start next month a pilot program to route some 911 calls from nonviolent callers who may be experiencing mental health issues to counselors instead of police.
Scott said he’s not asking residents to be patient.
“It’s not about convincing people to be patient, because I’m not patient with it,” he said. “We continue to push.”
The pace of killings in Baltimore — 109 people dead through Friday morning — is roughly in line with a level of violence that’s gripped the city since homicides surged in 2015 following the death of Freddie Gray in police custody and subsequent protests, said Jeff Asher, a New Orleans-based crime analyst who’s written extensively about national violent crime trends.
The rise relative to last year’s pace is less alarming, Asher said, than “the persistently high level of gun violence that’s settled into a long-term trend.”
Karsonya “Kaye” Whitehead, a talk-show host on WEAA-FM in Baltimore and a professor at Loyola University Maryland, said she has dedicated daily programs this week to the increase in killings and heard anguished responses from residents alarmed and traumatized by the violence in the city.
“We cannot tell people who live in communities that are being targeted, we cannot tell family members who’ve lost loved ones, we cannot tell parents who are trying to comfort their children that you have to wait,” Whitehead said. “Waiting is over.”
The uptick in homicides this spring is particularly alarming, Whitehead said, because the hot summer months — typically the bloodiest of the year — are yet to come.
Residents aren’t the only ones pressuring Scott. He’s been the target of jabs by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, who has faulted the mayor (as well as other local and state Democratic leaders). This week, Hogan said during a news conference he was “very concerned about the increase in violent crime in the city.”
He said Scott had a plan to “defund the police” that is one of several reasons for the spike. In fact, Scott’s proposed budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1 would increase police spending by $28 million to cover health insurance and pensions. The mayor has advocated in the past for cuts to police spending in favor of community enrichment efforts, such as opening recreation centers on Sundays, increasing trauma services and offering Black-owned businesses forgivable loans.
Scott tangled with Hogan over his take on city violence, tweeting: “Rather than relying solely on status quo ‘solutions’ and #MAGA talking points, how about actually meeting with me to discuss violent crime, gun trafficking, or restarting the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council — as I’ve asked before?”
Hogan eliminated funding in 2017 for the council, a panel of leaders from across the criminal justice system in Baltimore. The group had met for 18 months to collaborate on issues such as ensuring detainees weren’t released before being served with open warrants.
A day after their social media spat, Scott told The Baltimore Sun that he and Hogan would meet on city crime, a summit set for Thursday in Annapolis.
“Everyone has to put aside the talking points,” he said. “Put aside the partisan stupidity and come to the table.”
The Rev. Donte Hickman, pastor of Southern Baptist Church in East Baltimore’s Broadway East neighborhood, said the sparring was “unproductive.” Together, the mayor and the governor have the resources to make substantive change, he said.
Hickman said he believes Scott has “great desire to bring about transformation,” but it’s time to try some of the ideas.
“Now is not the time for just evaluation, but for the risk of implementation,” Hickman said. “The lives that are being killed are too many. We cannot wait. We have to take big strides.”
Washington, of the Coldspring Homestead Montebello group, has faith in Scott’s intentions. “He is working as best he can and as quickly as he can to get definitive action steps in place and implemented,” he said.
“The problem with Baltimore City is the decades-old, long-standing issues that have never really been fully addressed. There’s been partial fixes, temporary progress … None of these things have absolutely done what they should do to ensure the preservation of life.”
But he added, “Baltimore is in a situation where the residents can’t afford a wait-and-see approach.”
Criminologists and other experts said individual municipal leaders or police chiefs have limited abilities to immediately stop killings. And spikes in homicides in major U.S. cities appear frequently to be tied to wider — and sometimes poorly understood — trends extending far beyond a city’s borders, including a nationwide surge in gun sales.
“There’s really not much the mayor can do, honestly,” said Christopher Herrmann, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a former New York Police Department analyst. “Fix poverty, fix the schools, fix the gang problem. Unless you have solutions to those big problems, a lot of times, it is what it is.”
There’s an emerging consensus that a current national spike in killings is driven at least in part by badly damaged community trust in law enforcement. That makes it both harder for detectives to solve crimes — because citizens are more reluctant to call police or come forward as witnesses — and more likely that some people may resort to violence to resolve disputes or exact vengeance, fueling further violence.
Stop-and-frisk sweeps by cops can get guns off the streets, Herrmann said. But while that might briefly tamp down shootings, he said, it could be counterproductive in the long run by alienating residents sick of heavy-handed tactics and further corroding a police department’s reputation in key neighborhoods.
“There just aren’t going to be short-term political moves that are going to change things,” said Jeffrey Adler, an historian at the University of Florida who studies crime and urban politics.
Solving a far higher proportion of Baltimore’s shootings and murders would likely help, Herrmann and Asher said, by taking gunmen off the streets and restoring credibility to a system that currently solves less than half of killings. So, too, would rebuilding the BPD’s reputation in the eyes of citizens.
“It’s very difficult to see it changing quickly,” said Asher, pointing to the example of Chicago, where homicides steadily dropped after skyrocketing in 2016, only to surge last year. “It took a lot of hard work to see increased police trust for a bit, a lot of hard work to increase homicide clearance rates for a bit — but then it all came crashing down.”
Kurt Schmoke served as Democratic mayor of Baltimore from 1987 to 1999 and is also a former state’s attorney for the city. He said murders have been “the cross that we’ve been bearing in Baltimore for over 50 years now.”
”I think that Mayor Scott recognizes that it is not a problem that is going to be solved just by trying to arrest our way out of it. It’s going to take multiple approaches from a variety of city agencies,” said Schmoke, who is president of the University of Baltimore.
Schmoke said an influx of money from the Biden administration’s American Rescue Plan gives Scott “an opportunity to implement some things that he normally wouldn’t be able to because of budget constraints.”
“I understand exactly the sentiment that people are going to want more from the mayor than an expression — that shooting is ‘unacceptable’ or that he’s very concerned about it — but I do think that what he’s trying to put together is the right strategy.
“It’s just that it takes a little more time and, of course, if somebody’s being shot or if there’s shooting in your neighborhood, you want to see a strategy now.”