Mayor Brandon Scott announced Monday that the city’s revived anti-gun-violence strategy has moved into East Baltimore.

The long-awaited step comes as violent crime has continued to recede in Baltimore following last year’s record drop in homicides — a trend Scott and public safety officials have credited in part to the success of their “group violence reduction strategy,” an alternative approach to policing that melds traditional law enforcement tactics with social services.

The announcement also comes roughly three weeks before the Democratic primary election for mayor.

While the group violence strategy got off to an encouraging start in a 2022 pilot run in the Western District, the city’s effort to scale it citywide has progressed slower than planned.

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The approach expanded from the Western District into the Southwestern in early 2023 and moved into the Central close to a year later, but officials said Monday that implementation went live in the Eastern District on April 15, marking the shortest transition into a new district yet.

The city has reached a “critical milestone,” Scott said Monday at a wide-ranging news conference in Washington Hill, where he was flanked by a coalition of anti-violence advocates, public safety officials and representatives from the City Council.

“We know this works. We can see the impact with our own eyes,” said the first-term mayor. And with the validation of academic analysis into the early impacts of the approach, released earlier this year, “We are seeing results that no one can deny.”

Along with expansion of the group violence strategy, the Scott administration rolled out an update to its five-year violence-prevention plan Monday. The 66-page report reinforces the city’s focus on youth violence and includes numerous new targets for the administration, among them goals to expand a youth diversion program and institute reentry measures in the next year, as well as a a pilot program that puts violence-intervention specialists in four city schools over the next academic year — an initiative first announced in October of 2022.

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Homicides fell substantially in 2023, bringing Baltimore under 300 homicides during the year for the first time in nearly a decade and marking the city’s largest year-to-year drop on record. As of Monday, homicides are down 33% year-to-date, on top of the 2023 drop, while nonfatal shootings have fallen another 20% compared to this time a year ago, according to the city.

With the Eastern District, the group violence strategy moves into a a region that already saw substantial improvements in gun violence last year.

Under the group violence reduction strategy, law enforcement collaborates with anti-violence workers to home in on a small group of people at greatest risk of gun violence, seeking to pair them with social services like housing, financial and career support. The strategy reserves more traditional punitive enforcement for those who refuse help and continue in criminal behavior.

This so-called “focused deterrence” model has precipitated dramatic drops in violent crime in places like Oakland, Boston and New Orleans. But in Baltimore, the strategy has fallen flat twice, once in the 1990s and most recently in the wake of Freddie Gray’s 2015 death.

The revived strategy got off to a promising start in the historically violent Western District in 2022, when its implementation corresponded with a 33% drop in homicides and nonfatal shootings, according to a Baltimore Banner analysis. A separate analysis released in February by the University of Pennsylvania’s Crime and Justice Policy Lab reached a similar conclusion, determining it was “highly likely” that the anti-violence strategy drove the Western’s 2022 drop in shootings.

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According to the Scott administration’s original timeline, the group violence strategy would be completing its citywide expansion by the end of this spring. That timeline, rolled out in December of 2022, projected expansion into the Eastern District during the third quarter of 2023, meaning the citywide expansion plan is running at least six months behind schedule.

The mayor said Monday he’s “cautiously optimistic” about efforts to scale the strategy citywide and reiterated his argument that the city must move deliberately, rather than rush implementation and risk another failed attempt at the approach.

At points in the program’s expansion, though, Police Commissioner Richard Worley has acknowledged that high-profile departures and simmering morale problems have held up the process. The police commissioner expressed confidence Monday in the sustained expansion, and noted officers in the Eastern District have been supporting enforcement of the group violence reduction strategy and performing case reviews since last year.

“The transition should be easier as we move forward because the commanders have all bought into it,” he said. “Most of the districts are already doing the work, they just don’t have the rest of the resources there yet.”

Scott and public safety officials said Monday that they aim to have the strategy expanded into the Southern District by the end of this calendar year, with the remaining districts coming on board in 2025.

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Since the group violence strategy launched in early 2022, the program has connected 156 people with life coaching services, while also leading to the arrests of 256 people, according the city’s updated anti-violence plan.

Whether the success of the strategy can be sustained over a longer period or scaled citywide remains an open question. Scott is in the final weeks of a heated primary race with former Mayor Sheila Dixon, along with former Deputy Attorney General Thiru Vignarajah and businessman Bob Wallace. In her crime plan, Dixon explicitly endorsed a “focused deterrence” law enforcement model, though it’s unclear whether the former mayor would maintain the version pursued by the Scott administration.

Note: The mayor’s office is accepting feedback on the update to its comprehensive violence reduction plan. Residents who wish to weigh in can do so here.

Adam Willis covers city government for The Banner, including the impacts of the large COVID-19 stimulus package that Baltimore received from the federal government.

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