City Council members pressed public safety and housing authority leaders Wednesday in a third probe of July’s mass shooting at Brooklyn Homes, digging into the agencies’ preparedness for large community gatherings and the measures they have taken since to rectify mistakes.
The council’s last review ended abruptly when the mother of the 18-year-old Aaliyah Gonzalez, one of two victims killed at the event, brought many in the room to tears with a stirring account of her daughter’s death. In all, two people were killed and 30 shot on Brooklyn Day in Baltimore’s largest mass shooting in recent history.
Wednesday’s meeting was the second since the the Baltimore Police Department, housing authority and other public safety agencies released a scathing, 173-page internal investigation that revealed officer “indifference” and a system of failures that prevented the city from acting proactively in the hours leading up to the early morning shooting on July 2.
Here are key takeaways from Wednesday’s hearing:
Housing authority points to lack of community connections
Though the July shooting happened hours after hundreds of people had gathered for an annual neighborhood party on the property of Brooklyn Homes, a development managed by the Housing Authority of Baltimore City, public housing officials have maintained that they were not notified of an incident until hours after the shooting and did not have systems in place to alert them to the event. The agency does not have 24/7 on-site staff and has reported since the shooting that no calls came in that night to its 24-hour emergency hotline.
Housing authority President Janet Abrahams stressed Wednesday that the agency is reliant on residents to follow the provisions of their leases and apply for permits to hold events, something that did not happen in the case of Brooklyn Day. At the same time, the housing authority has deployed private, armed security at each of its public housing properties in Baltimore, an extension of a pilot that predates the Brooklyn Homes shooting, which Abrahams has argued could alert officials to dangerous circumstances on site.
The agency could have been better informed if there were more formalized channels for communication between departments, the agency’s Executive Vice President Monica Watkins told council members.
Still, Councilman Mark Conway pushed back on a “sticks”-focused approach by the housing authority, arguing that residents are always going to gather and the agency can’t depend on them following all the rules. The North Baltimore councilman suggested finding ways to incentivize residents to keep officials informed, like providing funds and other resources to support community events. The council could consider budgeting more money to the housing authority for this purpose, the public safety chairman said.
Abrahams and housing authority officials pointed to several steps they are taking to shore up communication between their residents and officials. Refrigerator magnets suggest residents call the emergency hotline for service needs like gas leaks or plumbing problems, Abrahams said as an example, but the housing authority wants to raise awareness about using it for public safety concerns.
At the same time, Abrahams said the housing authority has lacked connections with Brooklyn Homes residents in recent years because there wasn’t an active tenant council — a board representing resident interests — at the development. Not long before the shooting, a new tenant council was elected, which Abrahams said has bolstered the agency’s relationship with residents.
Since Brooklyn Day, the housing authority has also expanded its team of main office-based safety personnel from one to two people. The lone position was vacant at the time of the shooting, though someone was being interviewed for the job in late June. Two people have been hired for the roles.
Transfers moving slowly: ‘Some residents will be denied’
In the wake of the July shooting, city agencies have received a flood of applications from Brooklyn Homes residents asking to transfer to a different property. The housing authority did not specify Wednesday how many transfer requests they have received. The Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement, which also works on the relocation process, said that during the 45 days they were on-site at Brooklyn Homes, they received 86 applications to relocate from the housing development. That comprised the overwhelming majority of the city’s requests during the period.
So far, the housing authority has transferred “one family member” from Brooklyn Homes, Abrahams told council members. Transfers can be a cumbersome process dependent on several factors, including the availability of units in other public housing developments, and Abrahams said her agency is working with the state’s attorney and Police Department to complete mandatory “threat assessments” for other requests. Once complete, Watkins said the process of moving people takes a matter of weeks.
Still, “some residents will be denied,” Abrahams said, cautioning that not all applicants will meet housing authority criteria to transfer families.
Was the Southern District major up to the job?
Councilman Costello said Wednesday that he had privately raised concerns about the Baltimore Police Department’s pick for the Southern District major at the time of the appointment, questioning whether Samuel Hood — who was not named explicitly in the hearing — had the experience for the job. The Central Baltimore councilman said he was told at the time that Police Department top brass felt the placement would be “a good development opportunity” for Hood.
The former Southern District major had a depth of experience, including with responses to large events, Acting Police Commissioner Richard Worley said, but also made a decision — the wrong one — about calling for help, a choice he had to make too quickly because the issue wasn’t escalated to him until late in the evening. Hood has since been reassigned.
Worley stressed the importance of rigorous training for his officers, though, and said the department is looking to implement a policy requiring high-ranking appointees to shadow another official of their rank for at least four weeks before taking up the job.
Still, Costello argued that Hood was not put in a position for success and lamented that it took thirty people getting shot to reassign the major.
“Something was going to happen at some point in time,” he said, “and it is tragic that this is what that was.”
Police policy for unpermitted large gatherings was unwritten
The Police Department’s post-shooting report, released at the end of August, revealed numerous points in the hours prior to the mass shooting in which high-ranking supervisors and patrol officers alike took a hands-off approach to the Brooklyn Day crowd, choosing not to intervene or request more units even as 911 calls from citizens grew more frequent and desperate.
Worley has accepted blame on behalf of his department for the mass shooting in Brooklyn and questioned why calls for support weren’t escalated to police supervisors before the event turned violent.
Still, department officials told the council on Wednesday that, while the they had rules in place for how to respond to large, unpermitted gatherings, the protocols had not been put into writing.
“You know that if you’re managing people, if it’s not in black and white — if there is nothing you can point to — then it’s squishy,” said department Chief of Staff Michelle Wirzberger of the protocol. A specific policy that leaves no room for questioning individual responsibilities and escalation protocol is awaiting approval from officials overseeing the department’s consent decree, she said.
Still, Councilwoman Phylicia Porter, whose South Baltimore district includes Brooklyn Homes, objected later in the hearing to department officials’ references to loosely defined standards, pressing Worley on the department’s failures to comply with its own standards in the lead-up to the shooting.
There were “multiple balls dropped” and “every agency that we are talking to is directly coming back to BPD,” Porter said after questioning of the housing authority had turned back to communication of the events from police. A mass shooting in Carroll Park two years ago prompted City Council hearings where police leadership referred to established protocols that officers hadn’t met, she said.
“This is a clear aspect of not following the rules, and lives are being lost.”