Baltimore's Mayor Unveils New Violence Prevention Plan

BALTIMORE (AP) — Aiming to treat gun violence as a public health crisis, Baltimore’s mayor on Friday unveiled a five-year violence reduction plan for the U.S. city where violent crime rates have remained high since a 2015 surge.

Mayor Brandon Scott, who took office in December, said the plan aims to end the city's foundering efforts to tackle its top problem. He asserted that Baltimore — which has had four mayors and five police commissioners over the past six years alone — had never before developed a multiyear strategy to stem violence, instead lurching from year to year with disparate approaches.

Now, Baltimore is touting an all-hands-on-deck strategy, beefing up investments in violence intervention programs such as Safe Streets, increasing community engagement and putting a renewed focus on diminishing illegal guns. Overall, the plan aims to reduce gun violence by 15% per year.

“We understand that no single policy or initiative serves as a cure-all for the long legacy of violence Baltimore has endured. There's no silver bullet. However, I believe wholeheartedly that this transformative approach can move the needle and make every neighborhood in Baltimore a safer place to live,” Scott said outside a community center.

Gun violence rates have remained high in Baltimore since the 2015 death of Freddie Gray, a young Black man who suffered a fatal injury in police custody. His death triggered massive protests and the city’s worst riots in decades.

Maryland's biggest city has recorded more than 300 annual homicides for six years in a row. So far this year, it has recorded 192 homicides, compared with 183 during the same period last year. There's been nearly 400 nonfatal shootings so far in 2021.

Police Commissioner Michael Harrison said the new plan combines “effective policing” with other approaches to strengthen community relationships and build back trust. Since 2017, Baltimore has been under federal oversight after the U.S. Justice Department discovered longstanding patterns of excessive force, unlawful arrests and discriminatory police practices.

Law enforcement alone cannot effectively reduce violent crime, the police commissioner said.

“This is about breaking the cycle and culture of violence in our city, rather than the sole reliance on using police deployment alone,” Harrison said Friday as officials tried to drum up enthusiasm for the new plan at a series of events in the crime-weary city.

How the violence prevention plan's various efforts will actually mesh with prosecutors, police and neighborhoods remains to be seen. But some experts said taking a comprehensive approach to gun violence and framing it as a public health problem is likely the right way to go.

“While it acknowledges the importance of fair and effective law enforcement, it clearly lays out that public safety isn’t and can’t be just a policing issue. These are important differences from some of the approaches in the past and have the potential to lead to real change,” said Cassandra Crifasi, deputy director for the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Prevention and Policy at the Bloomberg School of Public Health.

The city's top prosecutor, State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, said Friday that there is now a “unified approach” to fighting violent crime in Baltimore.

“We know we cannot simply arrest and incarcerate our way out of the violence,” she said.

Scott's plan describes one tactic known as “group violence reduction strategy” that officials believe could be effective if it is sustained. Under this targeted strategy, law enforcement aims to prevent violence by identifying people who might be in a position to become shooters or victims and offering them help, such as work opportunities or substance abuse treatment.

Scott has also directed city police to establish a Firearms Intelligence Unit, which will investigate straw purchases and stem the flow of illegal guns onto the streets. The unit will collaborate with Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agents.

The plan calls for a reentry network to better provide services to people returning home from prison. And it touts the establishment of “neighborhood policing plans” so police can try to address quality-of-life issues and other challenges identified by residents. It's unclear how this might actually work in a city with large swaths of deeply disenfranchised neighborhoods and thousands of uninhabitable residential properties with boarded-up windows.

A core part of the plan aims to boost violence intervention programs that focus on mediating conflict and providing socials services with federal funding. This would include some of the city’s $640 million allocation from the American Rescue Plan, President Joe Biden’s sweeping COVID-19 relief package.

“Many of these programs have suffered from insufficient or inconsistent funding which can lead to inconsistent effectiveness. It’s important that these programs have sufficient and sustained funding for them to work,” Crifasi said in an email.