At the entrance to the Tench Tilghman Elementary/Middle School playground on Wednesday, state, federal and local officials lined up in front of a gate to highlight an array of collaborative efforts aimed at curbing the type of gun violence that has kept McElderry Park’s kids from being able to play without fear on the revamped slides and basketball court.
On a hot August afternoon, the press conference was meant to broadcast a show of force to violent criminals and emphasize unprecedented levels of teamwork among law enforcement agencies that are more accustomed to staying in their own lanes. But just as officials were speaking, word broke out from police scanner chatter of a shooting in Northwest Baltimore, about six miles away, that quickly became the focus of news crews gathered to receive the message from government officials.
Moments after Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison mentioned the tools his department was using to keep guns out of the hands of young people and “show them pathways away from violence,” he was en route to the scene of the midday shooting. Seven people were shot, one of them fatally, across from the Food City store on Park Heights Avenue at the intersection of Shirley Avenue, right next to where a group of men are known to play cards every day.
At the press conference he just left, Harrison had highlighted efforts in tandem with the U.S. Attorney’s Office to, among other measures, use an obscure federal statute to prosecute illegal firearm possession within 1,000 feet of school zones.
“As students prepare to return to the classroom, it is paramount that our local schools are a safe place for the success of our communities,” Harrison said. “Violence near and in schools is absolutely unconscionable and this new initiative illustrates just how serious we are about that.”
Wednesday’s shooting happened about a block away from a public charter school.
Prosecuting violent criminals … for fraud
Citing an “unprecedented level of state law enforcement funding” for his office, U.S. Attorney Erek Barron outlined several initiatives at the press conference, including an unorthodox approach to prosecuting violent criminals for other crimes, such as fraud.
Barron called it the “Al Capone model” of prosecution “designed to take violent people off the streets by any appropriate and legal means necessary.”
“All too often, we look at our violent crime targets in a vacuum,” Barron said. “We’re not going to do that anymore.”
The U.S. attorney cited pandemic fraud, unemployment insurance fraud, CARES Act fraud and PPP loan fraud as examples, adding, “You might not believe it, but what we have found is that more than half of our targets are involved in such fraud.”
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, Baltimore City Mayor Brandon Scott, Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh and others also spoke at the event.
Improvements for Little Italy
After the event, Hogan traveled to Little Italy, where he and state Senate President Bill Ferguson announced half a million dollars’ worth of neighborhood public safety improvements.
The plans include a combined $250,000 for license plate tag readers for police, additional police surveillance cameras and new crosswalk markings with reflective paint. They also pledged $250,000 in the next state budget — after Hogan leaves office — to expand the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore to Little Italy and to create a business improvement district for the neighborhood.
”There’s a great history here of 150 years. They’ve got wonderful businesses and restaurants,” the Republican governor said. “I think lately people weren’t feeling safe coming here to this neighborhood, but we want them to be safe and we want them to continue to come and support these local businesses.”
Ferguson, a Democrat whose district includes Little Italy, said the money will go to programs that will improve public safety.
“The investments that we’re talking about here today are evidence-based, thoughtful, purposeful solutions,” he said.
Hogan and Ferguson then went on a walking tour of the neighborhood with business leaders, stopping at Vaccaro’s Italian Pastry to sample cream puffs and the community bocce courts where they tried throwing a few balls.