Baltimore’s flagship anti-gun violence strategy likely drove down shootings in the historically violent Western District by one-quarter over 18 months — a substantial reduction achieved without a corresponding increase in total arrests.

That’s the preliminary finding of new research by a team of academics that has been evaluating the effectiveness of Baltimore’s so-called “group violence reduction strategy,” which Mayor Brandon Scott launched in the Western District at the start of 2022.

An alternative approach to policing, the group violence 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.

Among their chief findings, researchers with the University of Pennsylvania’s Crime and Justice Policy Lab determined it was “highly likely” that the group violence reduction strategy was responsible for a close to 25% reduction in shootings in the Western District — or 60 fewer people shot — over a year and a half, compared to the levels of violence that would have happened without the intervention. The benefits of the strategy were most profound in the first 12 months before abating somewhat afterwards, the researchers found.

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“This means that GVRS implementation appears to be consistent with the values set forth from the very beginning,” said Aaron J. Chalfin, a professor of criminology at the University of Pennsylvania and a member of the research team, when debuting his team’s findings at a press conference Thursday alongside Scott and public safety officials.

At the same time that shootings were dropping, the University of Pennsylvania team found that overall arrests in the Western District did not increase over the 18-month period, in line with policing trends citywide and in similarly violent sections of the city.

The academic findings affirm a similar analysis of the strategy by The Baltimore Banner a year ago, after a pilot run in the Western District over 2022 corresponded with a 33% drop in shootings. The Banner’s analysis looked at a range of common criticisms of the group violence reduction strategy — including arguments that the strategy had “displaced” violence from the Western and that the reduction in shootings wasn’t significant in a longer-term context — and found little evidence to support most critiques.

Like The Banner’s analysis, the University of Pennsylvania team focused on early impacts in the tightly defined Western District.

Arrest rates have fallen steadily in the Western District and citywide since 2015, with the Baltimore Police Department under federal oversight for much of that period. The department has sustained that lower level of arrests over the last three years, a pattern the University of Pennsylvania team found has continued with the implementation of the group violence strategy.

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Deploying a model known as “focused deterrence,” the group violence strategy emphasizes a targeted approach to enforcement and has led to the arrests of 223 individuals across two police districts since its launch, public safety officials said Thursday. But while the strategy homed in on the highest risk individuals, researchers found the approach didn’t lead to an increase in total arrests in the Western District over the period they studied.

In addition to declining gun violence, the University of Pennsylvania team found the group violence strategy drove down carjackings by about one-third. Other types of crime, such as robberies and assaults, which are less likely to be associated with group activity, appeared unaffected, the researchers found.

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

Whether the success of the strategy can be sustained over a longer period or scaled citywide — as Scott aims to do — remains an open question. The findings released Thursday by the academic team are preliminary, and members of the research team said in a recent interview that they intend to keep tracking the program to look at other questions, like the impacts of services for individual participants, its cost-effectiveness and its longer-term results.

The researchers also found no evidence that the intervention in the Western District pushed criminal activity into neighboring policing districts.

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The University of Pennsylvania’s Crime and Justice Policy Lab is contracted with the city to help implement the group violence reduction strategy, though Chalfin said his research team operates independently from those assisting in the strategy.

One individual selected to receive services through the program, a 39-year-old named Andy, said he was 12 or 13 when he first “started playing in the streets” and got involved in drugs.

But Andy, who didn’t share his last name for safety reasons, credited the strategy with giving him a chance at turning his life around. Mentorship and other support provided through the organization Youth Advocate Programs, one of two nonprofits that offer services to participants in the strategy, has helped him land a job and to begin rebuilding relationships with his children.

“It’s not a microwave process,” he said. “It’s hard work, but that’s what I’ve got to do.”

Andy (left) shakes hands with Youth Advocate Programs life coach Sterling (right) after the press conference. (Julia Reihs)

Still, Scott’s plans to scale the strategy citywide have not gone smoothly and are running at least six months behind schedule.

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The Scott administration has expanded the strategy from the Western District into the Southwest, but only just completed expansion into the Central District last week, officials announced Thursday — a step that was scheduled to occur in the first half of 2023 under the the administration’s original timeline.

The Scott administration has also stretched the timeline to expand the program citywide. Stefanie Mavronis, director of the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement, said Thursday that they aim to move into the Eastern District this spring, with a goal of expanding farther before the end of the calendar year.

Scott attributed the slower-than-expected rollout to police redistricting and leadership changes in the department, reiterating that he doesn’t want to strain the strategy by rushing it.

“We’re gonna do it the right way,” the first-term Democrat said Thursday. “Not the quick way that’s gonna make everyone happy. Because if you move too fast, things will break down.”

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At the same time, Baltimore’s long-term commitment to the approach remains unclear. The strategy has proven vulnerable to leadership changes and political forces. Scott faces a competitive challenge in May’s Democratic primary from former Mayor Sheila Dixon, a race that also includes former mayoral candidates Bob Wallace and Thiru Vignarajah.

In her own crime plan released last month, Dixon explicitly endorsed a “focused deterrence” law enforcement model, but the former mayor has not said whether she would sustain the version of the strategy pursued by the Scott administration.

Cristina Layana, a senior data scientist in the University of Pennsylvania’s Crime and Justice Policy Lab, said it’s not the job of the research team to tell Baltimore leaders how to invest their resources. But she argued that the city should put its weight behind evidence-backed programs, noting that early indications out of the Western District suggest the strategy might be repeated to get similar results.

“If this can work in the Western District, then that means it can potentially work in other places,” she said.

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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