In recent months, cracks have started to show in Baltimore’s most promising response to gun violence, drawing the attention of Rich Worley, the Police Department’s newly appointed commissioner, who has moved quickly in an attempt to shore things up.
The stakes for the Group Violence Reduction Strategy are high. An alternative approach to policing, the strategy identifies those at highest risk of gun violence and offers them social services, reserving more traditional punitive enforcement for those who refuse help and continue criminal behavior. Last year, a pilot of the approach coincided with a 33% drop in gun violence in the city’s historically violent Western District.
But this year, the homicide rate in the Western has started inching back up. At the same time, the specialized unit charged with implementing the city’s flagship strategy has struggled with high-profile departures and simmering morale problems.
The fault lines have emerged with the city in the middle of an aggressive push to expand the strategy, even as two of its champions at the highest levels of city government have stepped down: Michael Harrison, the longest-tenured city police commissioner in years and a veteran of the approach, resigned abruptly, less than a month after Shantay Jackson, director of the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Safety, announced her exit.
Despite the leadership questions, key city officials, including Worley, have renewed their commitment to the strategy. But given the shortage of resources facing the city, from patrol officers to administrative vacancies, some advocates of the approach, like the former captain of the specialized unit charged with its implementation, worry that the push to expand the strategy citywide by mid-2024 will result in only a “watered-down” version of the Western’s success.
For believers in the strategy, recent obstacles are a reminder of how hard it is for a city to faithfully implement a “focused deterrence” approach to abating gun violence. Though the model has precipitated dramatic drops in violent crime in places like Oakland, Boston and New Orleans, it has fallen flat twice before in Baltimore, most recently in the wake of Freddie Gray’s 2015 death. The approach has proven vulnerable to leadership changes and political forces.
City leaders, meanwhile, stressed that their commitment to the strategy remains unshaken.
“This is something that we are very, very dedicated to doing,” said Worley, a member of the department since 1998 who began his career patrolling the Western District. “Because we saw the success, and a district has never seen that success since I’ve been here.”
Worley had to deliver a similar message at the Police Department’s budget hearings last week, when he faced questioning about the uptick of homicides in the Western and acknowledged personnel issues in the Group Violence Unit.
The enforcement section of that unit, at the time of the budget hearings, had lost seven of its 24 members, including two of high rank who left on the same day.
In an interview, Worley said that Major Robert Velte, who came out of retirement to lead the Group Violence Unit, would restore stability. To that end, he said that a lieutenant has already been added back to the unit, as well as three more detectives who will start on Sunday.
“In the coming weeks, they’ll be back to full strength,” Worley said.
Terence Nash, deputy director of the Group Violence Reduction Strategy for the mayor’s public safety office, said the city always expected implementation of the strategy to be difficult. Success hinges on rewriting culture, policy and procedures across numerous agencies, including police, on a relatively short timeline.
As Nash put it: “That’s a big haul.”
“There’s always going to be adaptation and improvements that need to be made while making that change, as you can imagine,” he said. “That’s where we are now.”
While the Western is falling behind the city’s goal of a 15% reduction in gun violence this year, expansion of the strategy to the Southwestern District — a process that began at the start of this year — has coincided with a dramatic improvement there, echoing the success of the Western District last year.
The neighboring district has seen a 30% drop in homicides and nonfatal shootings this year, and Nash said the city remains on schedule for an imminent expansion of the strategy into the Central District.
Overall, the data on gun violence in the Western District doesn’t paint a conclusive picture, a Baltimore Banner data analysis found. Gun violence has increased gradually at the same time that the Baltimore Police Department’s Group Violence Unit has experienced problems, leading some to believe the two might be related.
But when viewed more broadly, the increase looks less significant. The uptick follows the same patterns that the city as a whole experiences with gun violence: The number of shootings tends to increase in the warmer months.
Even so, the increase in the Western is worrying when compared with the success of the pilot program last year. In 2022, the number of shootings continued to decrease into the warmer months.
For the first time since the strategy was brought to the Western last year, the district saw monthly homicide increases this year in April. The trend continued in May.
One former senior member of the Group Violence Unit, former Baltimore Police Capt. Andrew Wiman, worried about the city’s push for the program’s expansion if it wasn’t coupled with investing more resources and manpower in the team charged with its implementation.
Wiman, who left the department at the beginning of April, told The Baltimore Banner that he wishes the city success in its effort to expand the strategy, and will anxiously await the results.
But without a more robust investment from the department in the strategy’s implementation, he said, “I don’t see how it’ll be any different than the crime fighting they’re doing now.”
Wiman said he believes wholeheartedly in the focused model of the group violence strategy — a total reimagining of the geographic focus and enforcement-driven approach the department has historically used — and even believes the city was ready for expansion when Mayor Brandon Scott and other leaders announced plans in December to expand the approach beyond the Western District.
But you don’t have to be a mastermind, Wiman said, to understand that the strategy is being “watered down” as it sprawls into new police districts without any additional investment in the resources and manpower of the lone unit tasked with implementing the model.
Adding to the challenges for an already strained unit, Wiman described a series of department decisions that sank morale within its ranks, which “basically crushed the team” and contributed to an exodus of officers.
Among them, the department tightened dress requirements for the plainclothes unit and altered its weekly schedule and hours, shifting half of their work to an overnight shift that Wiman said came to the detriment of their police work.
Still, Wiman said he was encouraged by recent steps Worley has made to address the issues in his former unit, including personnel reinforcements and a reversal of scheduling adjustments.
Thomas Abt, a criminology professor at the University of Maryland and founder of the recently launched Center for the Study and Practice of Violence Reduction, said the group violence reduction strategy has proven promising but stressed it’s not a “miracle cure” for gun violence.
Implementation of focused deterrence models is difficult on even the best days, he said, noting the importance of continuing to invest in the strategy as it expands.
“This is a classic challenge in program implementation,” Abt said. “It’s just a question of appropriate resourcing.”
Slipping returns in the Western District have drawn the attention of some members on the City Council, who drilled into the progress of expansion during marathon budget hearings with the Police Department and public safety office earlier this month.
Hours after Harrison’s resignation last week, Councilman Mark Conway said he worried about the impact the change in leadership could have on the group violence strategy. And like Wiman, the public safety committee chair questioned whether the specialized group violence unit can be expected to deliver the same impact as their jurisdiction sprawls.
“I think with expansion to the Southwest, we’re seeing, yes, the foot does come off the pedal a bit in the district we just came from,” he said. Still, Conway noted that the real test for the success of expansion is still ahead. Summer, typically the most violent stretch of the year, is in full swing.
“The summer is gonna be the true tell of how these numbers shake out near the end of the year,” he said.