Baltimore’s third experiment in a promising approach to violent crime, which officials say has provided much needed hope in the Western District over the past year, will now be expanded to other districts and eventually citywide.

But the city’s police union and the chair of the City Council’s public safety committee, while both supportive of the program, expressed some skepticism that the Baltimore Police Department has the manpower to support the expansion.

Known as the Group Violence Reduction Strategy, or GVRS, the approach melds traditional policing with alternative anti-gun violence approaches, such as offering city services to individuals who have been identified by law enforcement as being the most “at-risk” to be victims or perpetrators of gun violence.

Since launching a GVRS pilot in the Western District at the start of this year, the historically violent district recorded a nearly 34% year-over-year drop in homicides and nonfatal shootings. With Baltimore still facing persistent gun violence, which has pushed the city beyond 300 homicides for the eighth year in a row, city leaders have painted GVRS as the city’s ticket out of sustained violent crime.

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At a press conference Tuesday, Mayor Brandon Scott, the Police Department and the city’s office of neighborhood safety said that data proved that GVRS can work in Baltimore. They outlined their plan to expand the anti-violence strategy into a new police district in the first months of next year, and then taking it citywide by the middle of 2024.

“I feel confident that at this point, given three enforcement cycles, that our demonstration project’s done. The proof of concept is proven,” said Shantay Jackson, director of the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement (MONSE), in an interview last week.

Scott added that “you’d be a fool to think one thing is going to solve” high crime in Baltimore, but he underscored the importance of a holistic investment in crime prevention, which includes traditional policing, community outreach and other alternative tactics.

The expansion of GVRS will happen in incremental steps. First, the city plans to launch the strategy in the Southwest policing district, which has emerged in recent years as one of the city’s most violent. Then, later next year, the city would bring the strategy to the Central District, encompassing the Inner Harbor, downtown and Mount Vernon. Those three districts accounted for roughly 40% of the city’s shootings from October 2020 to October 2022 under the newly redrawn police district borders.

From there, the city would push GVRS east and then citywide.

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The push, however, is coming as Baltimore struggles with severe staffing shortages in its Police Department. According to the Baltimore City Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3, the union that represents rank-and-file officers, the city is operating with about 630 officers working patrol — far short of the 950 to 1,000 officers on patrol that the union says city leaders have agreed in the past should be the bare minimum.

“The Police Department is putting the cart way before the horse here,” said Sgt. William McDonald, speaking on behalf of the union. “In order to do effective policing, basic needs have to be met, and those basic needs are patrol officers handling calls from citizens and being proactive when they need to be. To create additional GVRS units, where are those officers coming to come from? They have to come from the patrol ranks.”

During Tuesday’s press conference, Police Commissioner Michael Harrison said that the department would have to convert officers’ existing duties in order to expand the GVRS units. But limited resources will “always be a challenge” as the city seeks to bring GVRS units to new districts, the commissioner said.

“That’s why we have have to be smart about the strategy,” he said. “That we can try to prevent people from making the bad decision in the first place.”

The GVRS model, Harrison said, hinges on the idea that much of Baltimore’s gun violence is driven by a small contingent of group-involved individuals in targeted areas. Officers will be asked to buy into yet another “paradigm shift” for the department, which has been undergoing a series of reforms since the death of Freddie Gray in 2015 and subsequent corruption scandals, such as the Gun Trace Task Force.

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According to the GVRS model, similar to one that Harrison oversaw in his previous post in New Orleans, law enforcement works hand-in-hand with community social service providers, offering resources like life coaching and cognitive behavioral therapy to at-risk individuals, but threatening to bring down the hammer if they decline the outreach.

Councilman Mark Conway, chairman of the City Council’s Public safety committee, said he has been patiently waiting for the city to ramp up the program, which he called “the ace in our pocket,” and one that has shown promising early returns.

“We know that this works,” Conway said. “It’s certainly not perfect, but when we’re talking about 300-plus homicides a year, it’s really hard to sit on the sidelines when we’ve got this program out here.”

But Conway expressed some concern about the city’s ability to ramp up the program, particularly when it comes to the Police Department, which has hundreds of vacancies and is losing more officers than it is recruiting every month. Under the pilot program, the department’s “GVRS unit” in the Western District consists of roughly 40 specialized members.

Jackson, the MONSE director, said officers had to interview to join the GVRS unit and that the department was careful to make sure they had unvarnished records with virtually no citizen complaints. “Even if we saw signs of disrespect in someone’s jacket, that wasn’t an option here in this group,” she said.

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Conway wondered where all those officers would come from.

“It’s one thing to put this on paper, but it’s a totally different thing when you’ve got a short-staffed police department,” Conway said. “We need people with the highest integrity. We need people who are confident, who are familiar with the neighborhoods.”

Scaling up

The GVRS has been tried in Baltimore at least twice before, once in the 1990s and again in 2014, then under the name “Ceasefire.” But advocates for the approach argued that it has yet to get a fair chance in the city, and analysts expressed high confidence that this year’s dramatic drop in gun violence in the Western District has stemmed out of the GVRS pilot.

“Plain and simple, focused deterrence has the strongest evidence base of any violence prevention intervention, period,” said Jeremy Biddle, an advisor for Baltimore’s GVRS program, during Monday’s briefing. He added that while academics will be careful about claiming the Western District’s drop in shootings over the last year as a direct result of the GVRS pilot, “it seems undeniable.”

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Even so, officials said expanding the program will require a delicate hand, drawing on the lessons of similar scaled group violence programs in cities like Chicago and Los Angeles. The Ceasefire pilot resulted in a 42% drop in Western District homicides when it was deployed in Baltimore in 2014, according to figures shared during the Monday briefing, but the strategy fell apart when the city attempted to expand it into the eastern part of the city.

There is also the question of other Police Department resources, such as data fusion hubs known as Baltimore Community Information Centers, where analysts can pull data from license plate readers, ShotSpotter, and other law enforcement investigative tools.

Aside from the Western, the police department has the data fusion centers in three other districts: Southwestern, Central and Eastern. Those are the other three districts that have highly specialized enforcement units known as District Action Teams as well.

Conway said he noticed the scarcity of the data fusion centers and district action teams and said that it was his understanding it was due to a lack of resources. Ideally, Conway said, every district would have the ability to rapidly respond to data and address growing crime trends using the fusion centers and enforcement teams.

“As we are always looking at ways to be lean with our police department, I think we’ve been sort of forced into a corner there,” he said.

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, called Baltimore’s 2014 deployment of Ceasefire a “failure to implement,” not a failure of the policy. In its previous attempts at programs similar to GVRS, Baltimore basically did “half the strategy,” Abt said, in part because funding never came through to fulfill the service offerings, undermining the strategy’s crucial balance.

Abt expressed encouragement at Baltimore’s intent to build up GVRS, a strategy he said can provide “real relief” if it gets steady support from leaders in and out of City Hall. It may or may not prove the solution for the city, Abt said. But he added that Baltimore “needs a win” in its efforts to reduce violent crime, and the focused deterrence model has found success in other places.

“Baltimore needs to have some type of success to build on, not just failures to avoid,” he said.

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