I don’t use the description “Trump-like” lightly, but there is a certain alternative universe/Alice in Wonderland quality to the “we have a strategy – no we don’t” debate going on in Baltimore. Lt. Gene Ryan, president of the union representing rank-and-file officers of the Baltimore Police Department (BPD), has been increasingly critical of BPD management, claiming that it lacks a strategy to reduce the rate of murder and other violent crime in the city.
Police Commissioner Kevin Davis states that the accusation by Lt. Ryan is not true, and that the department does have a strategy. Mr. Commissioner, if that is so then you need to take the time to explain to everyone exactly what that strategy is. If you can explain it, we can understand it – enough with the suspense, for heaven’s sake. Outline in writing the steps you are taking to reduce violence, release it to the media, and then hold a press conference to answer questions.
Lt. Ryan escalated the war of words on Wednesday by announcing that his union, the FOP, would be meeting directly with community members, business leaders and elected officials to discuss solutions to city’s current “crime crisis” because the city government itself has no long-range plan. It was an obvious attempt to embarrass the commissioner into taking action- or maybe just to embarrass the commissioner, period. Commissioner Davis reacted testily, accusing Lt. Ryan of “willful ignorance” of the city’s plan.
Lt. Ryan may have been emboldened to step up his criticism of the commissioner by a growing chorus of voices raising similar concerns. The editors of The Baltimore Sun underscored their interest by publishing three separate opinion pieces on the subject within the span of several days.
On Sunday, the Baltimore Sun published my op ed criticizing the failure by city agencies to adopt a strategic violence-reduction plan and endorsing the proposal by Councilman Brandon Scott to develop one. I stated that the failure of the city to have programs with proven track records of success such as Operation Ceasefire and Safe Streets Baltimore in tamping down murder rates up and running two years into an epidemic of violent crime was a direct result of the absence of a credible strategic plan.
On Wednesday, the Sun editorial board rendered its own opinion on the subject, stating that Baltimore needed a “sustainable plan” beyond just canceling leave, requiring officers to work 12-hour shifts and putting as many officers on the streets as possible:
“People like the idea of police getting out of their cars, walking the beat and interacting with the community. We need that. But we need specialized units, too. We need homicide detectives investigating cases and building the evidence necessary to arrest the relative few who are responsible for most of Baltimore’s violence, and we need the state’s attorney’s office to win convictions that carry hefty sentences. We need internal affairs officers rooting out corruption in the ranks. We need narcotics squads disrupting major drug rings. And we need officers to work in sustained, hand-in-glove partnerships with federal and state agencies to engage in close supervision of those known to be at risk of perpetrating violence or becoming victims of it.”
In the same edition, the Sun published an op ed by former State’s Attorney Gregg Bernstein in which he decried the failure by city officials “to display any sense of urgency during the first six months of 2017 as the murder rate has skyrocketed, most recently highlighted by the killing of five people in a single night.” Mr. Bernstein described a long list of measures that he believed needed to be adopted, noting that an effective strategy “is not about sweeping corners and locking everyone up; instead, it requires a focused approach against the relatively few violent repeat offenders who are causing the violence.” He concluded:
“In the short-run, a focused, strategic, and aggressive approach against those who are driving violence needs to be adopted, not at the exclusion of the long-term initiatives, but in conjunction with them.”
Mr. Bernstein’s op ed echoed comments made by Rod Rosenstein, the former U.S. Attorney for the District of Maryland who is now the Deputy U.S. Attorney General. Mr. Rosenstein arguably was the most successful crime fighter in Baltimore during his twelve years as U.S. Attorney. During an interview with WBAL-TV in April Mr. Rosenstein observed:
“When we had a unified effort by local, state and federal law enforcement to focus on violent crime in Baltimore, we drove down violent crime in Baltimore. We did it from 2007 to 2014, and we believe we can do it again. The current strategy needs to be revised, because we’re not achieving the mission. The mission is keep the streets safe, and the streets aren’t safe, we need to change to deal with it . . . We need to be more aggressive, more pro-active with law enforcement, because our responsibility is to protect the law-abiding citizens.”
The theme of a lack of urgency among city officials is a recurring one. In January, the Sun editorial board admonished city officials to start acting like the city is in the middle of a homicide crisis – because it is. A few weeks later the paper ran my op ed suggesting that city and state leaders hold a summit on the epidemic of violent crime as a way of imparting a sense of urgency and beginning the process of putting together an effective plan.
The debate within the BPD is of course not about whether there is a plan; it is about whether the current plan is adequate. To date Lt. Ryan has not criticized Commissioner Davis by name, and “we need a plan” is perhaps less harsh than saying “the commissioner’s current plan stinks.” Lt. Ryan knows that a line would be crossed if it sounds like he is accusing the commissioner of not being up to the job, although he is getting close. Let’s hope that we have an acceptable plan on the table before that line is crossed. This is not the time for open warfare between the FOP and the commissioner.
Councilman Brandon Scott summed up the feelings of a growing number of observers from both within and without the BPD and city government: “We have to make changes to the strategy that’s happening today because it’s not working.” The commissioner needs to recognize that he is losing the confidence of people whose support that he needs, and then do something about it. One gets the sense that Commissioner Davis believes that if he retains the support of the mayor and governor, he’ll be fine. If that is what he believes, it is a mistake.
So, Commissioner Davis, start by laying out your strategy and tell us why you think it is the path to reducing the rate of murder and other violent crime. Let people ask questions and try to help them understand your strategy; like it or not, you are going to have to persuade people that your plan will work. Right now, they are not so sure that you even have a plan. If you do have one, don’t keep it a secret.
June 23, 2017