What caused a 33% drop in gun violence in West Baltimore last year? We analyzed it

Published on: January 20, 2023 6:00 AM EST|Updated on: January 20, 2023 10:14 AM EST

Photo collage showing silhouette of gun within the Western District map on the left side. On the right side, a mess of scribbles sits above a close-up of a young man’s eyes.
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Last month, as Baltimore breached 300 homicides for the eighth year in a row, the city’s public safety leaders emphasized a bright spot in an otherwise dismal year: a dramatic drop in shootings in one of the most violent parts of town.

The 33% reduction in homicides and nonfatal shootings in the Western District follows Mayor Brandon Scott’s revival of a crime prevention approach known as the Group Violence Reduction Strategy (GVRS), an alternative way of policing the city’s most violent offenders. Citing the Western’s improvement, Scott has declared the city’s crime prevention experiment a success and unveiled plans to take it citywide.

But for many, that explanation for such a sudden drop in those crimes has seemed too good to be true. The Baltimore police union and members of the City Council have questioned whether the drop stemmed from population losses, a heavier policing presence in the district or misleading data.

How could the experiment be viewed as a success after yet another year that saw sustained levels of homicides and other nonfatal shootings? In a common refrain, critics questioned whether the strategy had really reduced crime, or merely shifted it from the Western District into other parts of the city. While some of their questions were easily dismissed by available data, others are more difficult to answer.

A Baltimore Banner analysis of 2022 homicides and nonfatal shootings found little evidence to support most critiques. Theories around the so-called “displacement” of crime from one neighborhood to the next, population loss and whether the reduction is significant only in comparison to a 2021 spike are not supported by the available data, the analysis found. Meanwhile, arguments around the distribution of police resources are harder to untangle.

For their part, Baltimore’s mayor and his allies have broadcast their own confidence in the results, and last month staked longer-term hopes in its effectiveness, laying out plans to aggressively scale up GVRS citywide within two years.

Though the Group Violence Reduction Strategy had been tried twice before its current iteration, the approach represents a complex re-envisioning of traditional law enforcement.

Essentially, the strategy focuses on the relatively small number — hundreds — of people responsible for the bulk of violent crime in the city. With this in mind, the approach connects those leading police investigations with groups providing social services to offer law enforcement targets an alternative path out of violence as opposed to incarceration.

Questions around police department resources and Baltimore’s relationship with a key partner loom over the expansion of the strategy, but the blueprint has found success in other places. Cities like Boston and New Orleans have seen steep drops in gang-related violence after adopting similar focused-deterrence models, while criminologists have credited the implementation of a group violence approach in Oakland in 2012 with precipitating consecutive years of shooting declines and the city’s lowest shooting level in almost half a century.

Even in a city with as stubborn a violent crime problem as Baltimore’s, a significant reduction in shootings was what experts studying gun violence expected to happen. University of Pennsylvania researchers tracking Baltimore’s pilot of the strategy say the Western District’s 33% drop in shootings is just a preview of its potential. If Baltimore can faithfully implement the strategy as it expands – a hurdle it has failed to clear in two previous attempts – residents should expect to see a similarly precipitous decline in shootings citywide, they have said.

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Gun violence probably isn’t shifting from the Western District

Late last year, as the newly relaunched group violence strategy entered the fourth quarter of its yearlong pilot project, Scott’s administration was growing increasingly confident in the early results. Heading into September, the year-over-year drop in shootings compared to 2021 had risen to 33%.

But while the strategy was creating true believers in City Hall, others suspected gamesmanship with the numbers. On Sept. 1, news station Fox 45 Baltimore ran an article suggesting that the strategy was merely pushing homicides into surrounding precincts, an effect they described as “displacement.”

Fox 45 hinged its displacement argument on an “expert’s review of the data,” but did not cite a methodology or explain how it arrived at its conclusions. The Banner could not reproduce the news station’s findings.

Separate from TV news, some City Council members were developing similar concerns. At a December hearing on the proposed expansion of the strategy, the council’s public safety chairman questioned the police commissioner and the mayor’s top public safety official over whether crime in other parts of the city could be linked back to the targeted tactics of the Western District.

But The Banner’s analysis found that shootings do not appear to have been displaced outside the Western District. Generally, shootings were lower than the year before in five of nine police districts.

Though the large drop in the Western was largely offset by rising shootings in the Northeastern, The Banner found that those cross-town incidents are unlikely to be related.

In the Northeastern, the district with the highest spike in shootings last year, the number of shootings returned to pre-pandemic levels after dipping slightly in 2020 and 2021. Northeastern neighborhoods with the most shootings in 2022 are those that have historically had the most gun violence: Frankford, Belair-Edison and Coldstream Homestead Montebello. No neighborhood in the district has had an explosion in unprecedented shootings.

Rather than pushing violent crime to other parts of the city, the revitalized push for the strategy in the Western District may have benefited the surrounding areas. The Banner found that shootings in other districts within about 10 city blocks of the Western are at their lowest count since 2015, the year Freddie Gray died.

In an interview with the Banner, Councilman Mark Conway focused his concerns over the unintended effects of the strategy less on the ripple of criminal activity out of the Western, and more around a potential drain on police resources there, which he suggested might be contributing to spiking violence in other parts of the city.

The North Baltimore councilman said he believes the city’s strategy is working in the Western, but he questioned how much, and at what cost. “If we are too presumptive too soon,” he said, “I think we do ourselves a disservice.”

A heavier police presence isn’t the full story in the Western, but other factors could be at play

With the city’s mayor and police commissioner heavily invested in the success of the Western District pilot program, the Baltimore police union has questioned whether the department’s top brass committed more resources there than other parts of the city over the last year.

In weighing expansion of the program, the Baltimore City Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3 noted that the police department is short several hundred patrol officers. Plans to expand the group violence strategy to other districts, the union has argued, put “the cart before the horse.”

There are no publicly available data to gauge how police resources were allocated across all nine of the city’s districts over the course of 2021.

The Baltimore Police Department told The Banner it has not shifted more resources to the Western beyond the roughly 40-member “group violence unit” responsible for carrying out the strategy. No additional patrol ranks, detectives, or other resources were taken from other districts to shore up the Western, the department said.

But the dire state of the department means that tools that have been instrumental to the pilot program in the Western District don’t exist in other parts of the city, including a sophisticated data fusion center and a “District Action Team” primed to carry out law enforcement missions in areas with high levels of gun violence.

While the department’s ability to maintain patrol coverage while expanding the program citywide remains an open question, the perception among some elected officials that the success of this group violence strategy has hinged solely on a heavily resourced Western District and specialized attention from the police department is more easily addressed.

The strategy aims to quell violence while relying minimally on punitive tactics, and in a year when Baltimore saw its first increase in arrests in recent memory, the total in the Western District actually declined.

Though the Western had the second-highest arrest total of any district in 2022, it has been on a steady downward slope since almost nine times as many arrests were made in 2010. Though the district with the most shootings in 2022 also had the largest decline in arrests, there is no statistical relationship between the change in arrests and the change in shootings across all police districts since 2015. This suggests that policy changes and strategic shifts, in addition to the targeted focus from police, are more likely to explain last year’s sudden reduction in gun violence in the Western.

Cristina Layana, a researcher for the University of Pennsylvania’s Crime and Justice Policy Lab, pushed against perceptions that the law enforcement side of the strategy alone — and not its balance with social service offerings — is largely responsible for the Western District’s drop in shootings. If only the policing half of the approach is working, then individuals accepting services would have relapsed into crime at a higher rate, said Layana, who has been tracking the pilot as an independent researcher for the city. In fact, she has found the opposite: Individuals targeted by police in the Western District have been more likely to be re-arrested than those who have accepted service offerings.

One caveat is that the public data make it hard to say if there are more arrests in the Western District. The Open Baltimore arrests database only includes location information for arrests from police intervention. Most warrant arrests do not have locations. That includes someone arrested by a police officer who witnessed them commit an arrestable offense but that person already had an existing arrest warrant. These arrests have also been dropping at a similar rate but make up 64% of all arrests.

A reduction in arrests is another prescription of the focused approach, according to Layana and her colleague, Jeremy Biddle, a special adviser to Baltimore’s GVRS program. They said that the strategy aims to build trust between the community and police by relying on a targeted approach to the most at-risk individuals and using punitive law enforcement tactics as a last resort for others.

“It’s how the violence decreases that’s equally if not more important,” Biddle said.

33% drop in shootings cannot be explained by an especially high 2021

As cities emerged from pandemic restrictions in the summer of 2021, Baltimore and others saw increases in violent crime. Some skeptics of the group violence reduction strategy have pointed in particular to May and June of that year, when the Western District saw 27 shootings, to suggest that anomalous months in 2021 have resulted in a misleading figure for the drop in shootings.

It’s true that there was a relatively high number of people shot in those two months, but the number of shooting incidents wasn’t extraordinary compared to other years. Whether we’re comparing shooting incidents or the number of people shot between 2021 and 2022, each metric shows a drop of more than 30%. Moreover, the number of shootings and victims was already lower for both years compared to peaks in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death.

And the 2022 drop represents a substantial improvement for the district, even when compared to the quietest recent years on record. The 107 shooting victims the district experienced in 2022 is 24% below the 2020 total, when the onset of the pandemic coincided with a recession in West Baltimore shootings.

The closure of the Gilmor Homes housing project doesn’t explain it

In a letter criticizing the city’s plans to expand the program, police union President Mike Mancuso pointed to the partial closure of Gilmor Homes as one contributor to the Western District’s drop in shootings, on top of broader population losses.

But “the most crime ridden housing complex in the city,” as Mancuso called it, was partially demolished in 2020, and any impact on crime seems to have had its effect in 2021. A drop in shootings in the immediate vicinity of Gilmor Homes had already occurred before the start of 2022, meaning lower crime in the area was baked into the data before the group violence pilot got underway last year.

Historic, unmatched population loss in the Western doesn’t explain it either

The Western District has seen historic population loss unmatched by any other police district, a factor highlighted by the police union as a driver of the 2022 drop in shootings.

But while the precise role that declining population has played in Western District crime is hard to pinpoint, a broader analysis found no relationship between population loss and the number of shootings in Baltimore police districts. Of the eight districts that saw an average population loss, The Banner found some with large decreases in population and small decreases in shootings; others showed large decreases in population and increases in shootings.

Even as the Western has seen five-year population losses as high as 22%, there hasn’t been any less tendency to report incidents to officials. District calls to 911 and 311 held steady between through 2021. Calls to 911 are unavailable for 2022, but 311 calls held steady through the first six months of last year.

Still, it’s hard to say anything with certainty about the effects of population loss in such a recent stretch. There is no available population data for 2022. The most recent estimates are from 2021, and the most recent count is from 2020. The Banner has relied on population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey between 2016 and 2021, a dataset with a wide margin of error.

Community leaders in West Baltimore, however, noted that declining population is not a new factor for their neighborhoods.

Inez Robb, president of the Western District’s Community Relations Council, said she wasn’t aware of any recent data on population, but she hadn’t noticed a significant exodus of residents in 2022. Robb said population loss in the Western has been a problem for more than 30 years, and many of the residents who have stayed are homeowners.

“The people I know, who are here, we’re still here,” Robb said. “And I’m here because I bought a condo 35 years ago.”

In the end, the effect of population loss in the Western does not seem to be fewer shootings, but fewer people to witness the violence that remains. The only discernible outcome of population loss in the Western District is an increase in the rate of shooting victims per resident. The Western already had the highest gunshot victim rate of any district with 4.5 victims per 1,000 residents.

With five years of population loss and a 6% decrease in the number of shootings, the rate increased to 5.4.

Learn more about our analysis and reproduce our findings by visiting our GitHub page.