For a deeper dive into the data analysis, read the full version of this story.

For the eighth year in a row, Baltimore surpassed 300 homicides. But the city’s public safety leaders have emphasized one bright spot in an otherwise dismal 2022: 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 an alternative approach to policing the city’s most violent offenders, piloted in one of its most violent police districts.

For many skeptics, attributing the sudden drop in shootings to the Group Violence Reduction Strategy seems too good to be true. The Baltimore police union and members of the City Council have questioned whether the drop could actually stem from population losses, a heavier police presence or misleading data.

The answer to these questions is core to understanding whether the strategy is working, prompting The Banner to dive deep into Baltimore Police shooting data. What did our analysis show? Some questions remain unanswered, but common critiques don’t hold up.

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Western District shootings are down

The strategy has worked in cities like Boston, Oakland and New Orleans

The strategy focuses on people responsible for most violent crime and connects them with social services. Cities like Boston and New Orleans have seen steep drops in gang-related violence after adopting 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.

Still, questions around police department resources and Baltimore’s relationship with a key partner loom over the city’s plans to expand the strategy to the rest of the city.

Gun violence probably isn’t shifting from the Western District

It’s been a recurrent point of skepticism around the effectiveness of the strategy, surfacing in a December City Council hearing and in a critical report from Fox 45 Baltimore, which suggested in September that the strategy was merely pushing homicides into surrounding precincts. The Banner has not been able to reproduce the news station’s findings.

The Banner’s analysis found that declines in shootings in the Western District corresponded with drops in shootings within 5, 10 and 20 blocks of its borders in surrounding districts.

The Western’s drop in shootings was offset primarily by increases across town in the Northeastern District. Citywide, shootings were down about 5%.

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

Some elected officials and the police union have theorized that the success of this group violence strategy has hinged largely on a heavily-resourced Western District and specialized attention from the police department.

It’s true that resources available in the Western don’t exist in other parts of the city, and the police department has dedicated a specialized team to implementing its strategy there. But even with that heavier police presence — and at a time when arrests in Baltimore increased for the first time in recent memory — the number of arrests in the Western District only increased by about 1%.

Though the Western had the second-highest arrest total of any district in 2022, it has been on a steady downward slope since 2010, when almost 9 times as many arrests were made. Targeted focus from police may have contributed, but policy changes and strategic shifts also appear critical to last year’s sudden reduction in gun violence in the Western. Fundamental to the new strategy is an aim to quell violence with minimal reliance on punitive tactics.

Arrests did decrease by 20% in the Northeastern District in 2022, but The Banner’s analysis found no statistical relationship between changes in the arrests made in a district and changes in the shootings committed there since 2015.

If the drop in shootings was only attributable to more policing, then individuals targeted by the strategy who accept services should have relapsed into crime at higher rates, said Cristina Layana, a researcher for the University of Pennsylvania’s Crime and Justice Policy Lab who is an independent researcher tracking the pilot for the city. People who took services have been less likely to re-offend. People who were targeted by law enforcement, meanwhile, were more likely to be re-arrested, she said.

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The police department told The Banner that it has not dedicated any additional resources to the Western aside from its specialized group violence team. But its ability to maintain patrol coverage citywide at current levels — including in the Northeast — while expanding the program citywide remains an open question.

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

Some skeptics of the Group Violence Reduction Strategy have pointed to May and June, 2021, when the Western District saw a spree of 27 combined shootings. They suggest those months have resulted in a misleading drop in shootings when compared to last year.

But that was not an abnormally violent stretch for the Western District. There were a relatively high number of shooting victims in those two months, but overall the year was not an outlier. Year-over-year, the Western saw a 35% decline in shooting victims. Even if you compared 2022 to the year with the fewest victims since 2015, the Western still recorded a 24% drop.

Closure of the Gilmor Homes housing project doesn’t explain it

Police union President Mike Mancuso has pointed to the partial closure of Gilmor Homes as a contributor to the drop in shootings, calling it “the most crime ridden housing complex in the city” in a letter to city officials.

After the complex where Freddie Gray lived was partially demolished in 2020, the number of shootings in and around it had already fallen significantly in 2020 and 2021, meaning lower crime in the area was already baked into the data before the pilot began last year.

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Shootings within about two, three and four blocks of Gilmor Homes dropped by almost half in 2021 even as shootings in the Western District increased, finishing higher than any year since 2017.

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

The precise role that declining population has played in Western District crime is hard to pinpoint, but 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 through 2021. Calls to 911 are unavailable for 2022, but 311 calls held steady through the first six months of last year.

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 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.

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

Want a fuller explanation of our analysis? Read the long version.

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