The epidemic of violence that has gripped Baltimore for the past two years is, among other things, a public health crisis. Baltimore will be discussed for years to come in schools of public health as a case study in how not to manage such a crisis.
Finally, however, there is a ray of hope. City Councilman Brandon Scott introduced a resolution, co-sponsored by all members of the city council, calling for the mayor and city agencies to develop a “Comprehensive Gun Violence Reduction Strategy.” Why it has taken so long for someone in the city to recognize the need to put together a strategic plan is a matter for another day. Better late than never.
For the past two years actions have been guided by politics and a series of individual decisions rather than by a coherent, comprehensive plan. The consequences are best demonstrated by the absence of any effective tools to apply to the recent spike (or more accurately, a spike within a spike) in gang-related violence.
Some of the city’s gangs are informally-organized, but they are gangs nonetheless. The story by Justin Fenton and Kevin Rector in The Sun about a series of killings related to the murder of local rapper Lor Scoota illustrated a phenomenon that police officers have understood for years: A significant percentage of murders in Baltimore are retaliatory killings; in other words, done by persons who take justice into their own hands.
The “good” news about retaliatory killings is that some can be interdicted at the last minute, but to do so you must have eyes and ears on the street and people in place capable of intervening effectively. The Safe Streets program, based on the proven CureViolence mode, is designed to identify and interrupt conflicts. It can be messy because it uses recent ex-offenders to mediate disputes. The benefits, however, outweigh the risks that on occasion an outreach worker will return to criminal behavior. We’re trying to prevent murders, not create saints.
People rally for the Baltimore Safe Streets program as concerns arise about a proposed budget cut to the city violence prevention program. Operation Ceasefire, another program with a record of success, uses highly intensive interventions focused on individuals at high risk of committing violent acts to disrupt the cycle of retaliatory killings. Neither Safe Streets nor Operation Ceasefire have been given the necessary support to work in Baltimore. That never would have been allowed to happen if the city was working from a credible plan to reduce gun violence.
During one 72-hour period this month, seven people were killed and 15 wounded by gunfire. Unless there was a terrorist attack that I missed I am certain that many of those shootings were retaliatory, with one shooting leading to the next. It is inexcusable that two years into this epidemic the city had too few assets on the ground working to prevent that carnage, and that failure is entirely a consequence of the ad hoc way the city and state have responded to the evolving crisis.
Money and other resources are limited. Priority must be given to programs and services that are most likely to reduce gun violence in the shortest possible time. The necessary focus on such programs and services never will be achieved until there is an agreed-upon plan for reducing gun violence.
There are other objectives that are important, including tackling the social and economic conditions that breed crime in the city, but they are secondary. An adequate plan will establish a sequence for funding programs and services in the order of their priority. The city cannot afford to go off in a hundred directions all at once, throwing money around without any clear set of goals and objectives. That, unfortunately, is exactly what has happened.
The city council should invite the governor to participate in the planning. The plan needs both political and practical credibility to succeed. There is an abundance of expertise in the city, including the Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health and the University of Maryland School of Social Work. Use them, because you need people experienced in making data-based rather than political decisions. In fact, try to keep the process as free from politics as possible.
The biggest threat to the success of the council’s initiative will be the minefield that is politics in the city and state. Crafting a useful plan depends on elevating the planning process above politics. The biggest challenge will be getting beyond the egos of the politicians whose cooperation is required. If that can’t be done this one glimmer of hope is going to fade away.
[Published as an op ed by The Baltimore Sun on June 16, 2017 but not posted to my blog until January 8, 2018. The date of posting that appears above was backdated to place all posts in the order in which they were written.]