The Baltimore Police Department’s proposed new district boundaries, which officials say are necessary to modernize and streamline police operations, would shift areas of the city that have had more of the most violent crimes into larger, more violent Eastern and Western districts, a Baltimore Banner analysis has found.

Those shifts have not gone unnoticed, sparking pushback from community associations and some city council members. But larger, more violent districts could actually be beneficial for Baltimore if police equitably realign resources, experts say.

The reshuffled borders would be a massive change for the city, which is carved into nine police districts, each staffed to patrol and respond to crimes generally within its boundaries. Those lines have not been redrawn for nearly 70 years, despite foundational changes to its population and crime trends in that time.

Over the last several weeks, Police Department leadership has pitched residents and elected officials alike on the upside of redistricting: streamlined operations, more equitable workloads for different precincts and neighborhoods that used to be split between districts united under one command structure. Administrative officials used crime data, internal policing metrics and community feedback to create the second draft of the new map, which is set for a City Council vote later this month.

As police leadership nears that finish line, it has run into what it views as somewhat inevitable dissatisfaction among some communities. At a public hearing last week, City Councilwoman Odette Ramos told police leadership while she appreciated some adjustments to the map, she was “highly disappointed, very upset” that the Coldstream Homestead Montebello neighborhood was being moved from the Northeastern District into the higher-crime Eastern District.

Police Commissioner Michael Harrison responded that moving the neighborhood was a tough but necessary adjustment because they had to move some “high-volume” areas into the new Eastern District. But Ramos questioned the police data used to justify the changes, saying that it captured only reactive responses to calls and not proactive measures neighborhoods were taking. That would seem to prioritize more affluent neighborhoods, Ramos said.

She’s not alone. After numerous police scandals that have led to distrust among the community, Police Department leaders are finding skepticism for things as fundamental as the crime data used to determine the new boundaries. In Reservoir Hill, which would move from the Central District to the Western, the most violent proposed district, some residents already distrust Baltimore police data.

During a monthly membership meeting of the Reservoir Hill neighborhood association late last year, a Baltimore police officer tried to dispel “misinformation” on a shooting the prior weekend that residents wanted to know more about. Detectives and department data said it never happened. “Let’s be careful when listening to things like Nextdoor,” he told them, referring to a social media platform for neighborhoods. Police had not even received a call, the officer said.

But it was Keondra Prier, the president of the Reservoir Hill Association running that meeting, who had heard the shooting. A member of her family had called the police, she said. Other neighbors participating in the November 2021 Zoom meeting said a neighbor’s car had a bullet hole and officers were seen collecting bullet casings. Vexed by the exchange, Prier and others she knows now doubt the department’s data resources.

“What it did was feed at a sense of suspicion a bit for many of our members,” Prier told The Baltimore Banner. “Because how can we believe your data now if we saw something happen, we knew it happened, we witnessed it, and it’s not showing up, so what does that tell us about the rest of your data?”

It’s possible the shooting was recorded as something else in Police Department data due to a lack of a victim, but Prier said that was never communicated to the association.

Redrawing borders

Police analysts attempted to shape their proposed districts to evenly distribute workload, defined by the department as the hours officers spent responding to 911 calls.

But The Baltimore Banner’s analysis shows that the city’s attempt to equally distribute workload among its nine districts creates other inequities, disproportionately saddling larger versions of the Western, Eastern, Southwestern and Central districts with areas that have seen even more shootings, homicides and aggravated assaults. The trends were similar when The Banner analyzed pre-pandemic crime trends and those since the beginning of 2020.

Although it may cause discomfort for some residents, larger districts encompassing neighborhoods with historically high levels of violent crime could actually be beneficial for Baltimore, one expert says. The wider boundaries may allow commanders there to better address the root causes of crimes that currently span across neighborhoods dissected by existing district lines or take place just outside existing boundaries, said Michael Scott, the director of the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing at Arizona State University.

Achieving equity, however, will require extensive follow-through from the Police Department to funnel enough officers into busier patrol areas while scaling back efforts in the historically massive, high-workload Northeastern District, according to Scott and The Banner’s analysis.

Ramos, the city councilwoman, has concerns that the Police Department will not sufficiently follow through to make sure that happens.

In response to The Banner’s findings, a Baltimore Police Department spokesperson said the agency relied on data not included in The Banner’s analysis to shape its map, including more detailed data on calls for service and other crime data. The department also said that the historically small Eastern and Western districts would need to get bigger in order to achieve a more balanced workload.

Police leaders defended the new map in a City Council public hearing last week, emphasizing that the reshuffled borders would streamline community policing efforts.

Promise and pitfalls

Reuniting split neighborhoods under one police district does more than just improve community relations, it can also reshape the way officers do their jobs, said Scott, the policing expert from Arizona State University.

A problem area such as a drug market spanning two districts can benefit from divided police attention and also incentivize a policing practice that “police will never admit to, but it does happen,” Scott said: moving crime beyond borders.

“Rather than dealing with the underlying problems, you’ve just got to push it over until it’s not your problem anymore,” Scott said, adding that he used to see it during his time in St. Louis with prostitution markets.

The department’s plan has potential, but it is not without its pitfalls.

Although there are hopes that the new districts could improve policing, there is a long-standing skepticism over the Police Department data that crime analysts have relied so heavily on.

Experts say the data could be skewed, underemphasizing crime rates in areas where the community has increasingly strayed away from reporting incidents to police due to fears of retaliation.

“About half of crime goes unreported to police,” Scott said. “When you calculate workload based on reported crime, you’re systematically disadvantaging neighborhoods who do not report much of their concerns to police.”

The pandemic effect

Lumping more violent crime into the most violent neighborhoods is the result of the Baltimore Police Department’s attempt to distribute workload evenly across the city’s nine police districts.

No matter if you consider crime trends since the beginning of the pandemic or the five years prior, the result is clear: The most violent crimes would be moved from the Northwestern District into larger Eastern, Central, Western and Southwestern districts.

If crime trends return to pre-pandemic levels, the Western District would have the highest share of shootings, homicides, aggravated assaults and 911 calls. Redistricting would have increased all four. If pandemic trends are more indicative of the future, the proposed Southwestern district would have by far the most homicides. Nearly one of every five homicides have taken place within the proposed district boundaries since the beginning of 2020.

Findings of The Banner’s analysis differ from the Police Department’s primarily because The Banner used a different time frame for its analysis. The police’s Data Driven Strategies Division used crime data from 2016 to 2021 that is more complete and more complex than The Banner has, including the number of officers who responded to calls and the hours they spent responding. The Banner looked at crime trends since the beginning of 2020 and for the five years prior.

Some experts do not agree if the pandemic has altered crime trends permanently. Others say pandemic changes in crime are unlikely to hold, making pre-pandemic trends more representative of future crimes.

The Banner’s analysis was limited by the publicly available data. The 911 call data used does not include the number of officers who responded or the amount of time they spent. Crime data only included Uniform Crime Reporting Part 1 crimes, serious crimes that also include rape, robbery, burglary and arson. Other major findings of The Banner’s analysis are:

  • The Western, Eastern and Southwestern neighborhoods would comprise almost half of all city homicides and shootings and the share of homicides in the Western and Southwestern neighborhoods wouldincrease.
  • New areas and the residents who live there added to the Eastern and Western districts, which have historically high levels of violent crime, would lower the per-capita rates of homicides and shootings despite more of each occurring in those districts.
  • The proposed Northeastern District would have the lowest share of all shootings and homicides if pandemic trends continue, with just 7% of each, a drastic drop from 10% each. Only two other districts would see drops in both categories; their shares are much higher and remained within a percentage point of current levels.

Baltimore police criticized The Banner’s analysis for focusing on aggravated assaults, shootings and homicides, negating the other serious crimes the police used to track violent crime, such as robbery, theft and assault.

“The revised map took into account the public’s concern, while also understanding that certain Districts (Eastern, Central and Western) needed to grow in order to achieve a more balanced and equitable distribution of policing services for all Baltimore residents,” police spokeswoman Lindsey Eldridge said in an email. “As these districts get bigger, more officers will be reallocated to achieve a balanced and equitable distribution of policing services. Redistricting creates a balanced workload and ensures that officers in one district have the same level of responsibilities as any other district.”

The proposed districts have very effectively redistributed workload among the nine districts. Now, the Northeastern district has the highest workload, with officers spending an inordinate number of hours responding to 911 calls. Under the proposed map, it and every other district would have a similar share of the workload.

The City Council is expected to take a procedural vote on the proposed new district boundaries on Sept. 24. It is unclear when approved districts might actually change. Police told the council they would need at least several months before implementation.

Review the code used for the Banner’s analysis of proposed police districts on our GitHub page.

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