Baltimore public safety officials said Wednesday that they aim to expand a promising anti-gun violence strategy into its third policing district by the end of October, a few months later than originally planned.

Leadership in the Baltimore Police Department and the mayor’s public safety office expressed confidence at a City Council hearing Wednesday that the Group Violence Reduction Strategy is continuing to put a dent in Baltimore’s violent crime, not only in the two districts where it has been implemented but for other parts of the city as well.

Wednesday’s progress report comes as the city is nearly a year into an aggressive push to scale its Group Violence Reduction Strategy citywide. Though the so-called focused deterrence model has precipitated dramatic drops in violent crime in other cities, attempts to implement it at scale have fallen flat in Baltimore twice before, most recently in the wake of Freddie Gray’s 2015 death.

A timeline laid out by Mayor Brandon Scott at the end of 2022, when he first announced plans to expand the strategy, projected expansion into the Southwestern District early in 2023 followed by implementation in the Central District in the first or second quarter of the year.

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With full implementation in the Central District expected by the end of this month, the expansion push is running at least a few months behind the mayor’s original schedule.

Police Commissioner Richard Worley said after the hearing Wednesday that he’s satisfied with the pace of the rollout. The department made mistakes in its expansion from the Western District to the Southwestern, he said, pointing to communication issues between the specialized unit implementing the strategy and district leadership, but he said the department has learned its lesson for the next stages of the process.

The commissioner also noted that parts of the focused deterrence strategy, such as specialized metrics and strategy meetings, are already being used in the next expansion district, the Eastern, which he predicted will allow for a smoother transition. .

An alternative approach to policing, the Group Violence Reduction Strategy identifies those at highest risk of gun violence and offers them social services, reserving more traditional punitive enforcement for those who refuse help and continue criminal behavior.

The strategy got off to an encouraging start under Scott, with a pilot coinciding with a 33% drop in gun violence in the city’s historically violent Western District in 2022. The first-term Democrat announced plans in December of that year to scale the program rapidly across all nine policing districts within two years, achieving citywide implementation by mid-2024.

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Expansion of the strategy comes as Baltimore and other cities have seen receding levels of violent crime, a factor that could stem partly from reforms under the Group Violence Reduction Strategy but could also muddle analysis of its impacts. So far in 2023, Baltimore has seen about 15% fewer homicides from this time last year, while nonfatal shootings are tracking similarly behind last year’s level, according to department data presented at Wednesday’s hearing.

The promising program has also shown cracks under the city’s rapid expansion plan.

This year, two of the program’s champions, former Police Commissioner Michael Harrison and the mayor’s former public safety director, Shantay Jackson, resigned. The specialized unit tasked with implementing the strategy has run into morale problems. Some, including the former captain of the group violence unit, have expressed concern that the effects of the strategy are being watered down as it sprawls into new police districts without additional investment in resources and manpower for the special group violence unit.

Stefanie Mavronis, interim director of the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement, said Wednesday that the city is continuing to assess its capacity and resources as it expands into new districts. Under the revised timeline laid out Wednesday, Mavronis said, the city aims to expand into the Eastern District early next year before taking the program citywide in the second quarter of the year.

Officials with the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement also highlighted a low rate of re-arrests of people who have accepted services from the city. The agency reported a recidivism rate for program participants of just 5.26% — which includes arrests for violent offenses, handgun violations or takedowns — and a revictimization rate of 1.75%. Whether that trend holds as people get further from their last arrest remains to be seen.

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“These numbers are really low,” Mavronis said. While the city would prefer zero recidivism or revictimization, the results show the program is effective.

Up-to-date information on some impacts of the program remains limited, a point Councilman Mark Conway, who chairs the public safety committee, emphasized numerous times Wednesday. Because of redrawn district lines that took effect in July, the Police Department provided a year-over-year comparison only through July 9.

During the first six months of 2023, the Western District saw a marginal 2% reduction in shootings compared to the same period of 2022 — when the district saw a massive reduction — while the Southwestern District saw a drop of 10%, according to department data presented Wednesday.

Col. Kevin A. Jones told City Council the department has been working on getting districts not yet part of the anti-gun violence strategy footprint up to speed early, asking district officials to attend weekly strategy meetings, steps he said are easing transitions for the Central and Eastern districts.

“We do know that we have seen success,” Jones said. “Months ago we told all of the districts that — although it started in the Western and now it’s in the Southwest — it is coming your way.”

adam.willis@thebaltimorebanner.com

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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