Daniel Denvir is a Rhode Island-based contributing writer to CityLab and a former staff reporter at Philadelphia City Paper.
A similar program has been credited with reducing gun violence in Wisconsin, but Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby has been accused of effectively killing it.
In May, Baltimore City State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby indicted six police officers in the death of Freddie Gray after days of tumultuous protest. The streets are calmer but the city remains in turmoil, debating the prosecutions, the city’s policing culture, and a recent surge in gun violence. Mosby has made her name as an opponent of police abuse. But The Baltimore Sun's editorial board now accuses Mosby of obstructing a new task force assembled to analyze and address homicides in the city.
The upshot of the conflict, which places Mosby in opposition to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, is the perpetuation of the false notion that addressing police abuse and curbing civilian violence are mutually exclusive.
Baltimore’s Homicide Review Commission is based on a Milwaukee program that convenes law enforcement and social service providers to analyze and prevent violent crime, and has been credited for helping to reduce gun violence in Wisconsin. Mosby, according to The Baltimore Sun, effectively killed the project by refusing to share information on open cases, citing concern for witness safety.
Project leader Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, has said that Mosby's obstructionism undermined the initiative. It "really defeated the purpose and it completely took the air out of the whole process, and I notified the police commissioner and mayor's office and health commissioner that it just wasn't going to work," he told the Sun.
In a Monday radio interview, Mosby called the program a waste of money and effort because it's already obvious why killings took place.
"We know why homicides are taking place," she said. "We know it has to do with drugs. We know it has to do with gangs. We know it has to do with turf wars."
A spokesperson for Mayor Rawlings-Blake told the Sun that given the program’s positive track record in other cities, it would be "foolish to not at least investigate whether or not a similar initiative could be successful in Baltimore. We do not believe it was a waste of money to try it."
Murders in Baltimore have soared this summer, reaching 45 in the month of July alone, the highest single-month figure since the 45 recorded in August 1972, according to the Sun. The surge in violence has become the subject of harsh political disagreement since Gray's death and the uprising that followed. Police have been accused of staging a retaliatory slowdown, Rawlings-Blake is blamed for mismanagement, and Baltimore City Fraternal Order of Police President Lt. Gene Ryan contends that Mosby created an environment where police are afraid to do their job.
"The criminals are taking advantage of the situation in Baltimore since the unrest," according to a statement Ryan issued in May. "Criminals feel empowered now. There is no respect. Police are under siege in every quarter. They are more afraid of going to jail for doing their jobs properly than they are of getting shot on duty."
Others have cautioned that a spike, in Baltimore and a handful of other U.S. cities, does not necessarily constitute a long-term trend.
Whatever the case, Mosby denies that she is blocking the initiative, though she contends that sharing information on open cases could put witnesses in danger of retaliation in a city where a no-snitch ethos is sometimes violently enforced. In response to an interview request, Mosby's spokesperson sent me the text of an op-ed she published in the Sun.
"The foundation of the criminal justice system is built around trust. And in today’s harsh reality, citizens in Baltimore City typically do not trust prosecutors or police," writes Mosby. "Granting individuals outside of law enforcement access to information that could land our most violent and well-connected killers in prison for the rest of their lives is simply too great a risk to the people that are putting their own lives in danger to protect the rest of the community from further violence."
Mosby, whose celebrity status has become a Rorschach test of racial politics, won't let "sensational headlines and finger-pointing editorials from Baltimore's paper of record" get in her way, she continued.
By contrast, the Sun's editorial board has suggested that Mosby's resistance to the review commission is actually a reflection that her "office is not completely comfortable collaborating with police, despite claims to the contrary."
Webster issued a conciliatory statement Thursday night, stating that he "look[s] forward to continuing efforts with city leaders in the Mayor’s Office, the State’s Attorney's Office, Baltimore Police and Health Departments as well as with community service providers to understand the factors contributing to homicides so we can enhance the effectiveness of efforts to reduce violence in our city."
Earlier in the week, Mosby had smeared Webster, saying he "clearly had something to gain monetarily" from the project. Webster responded that his salary as a tenured professor is unrelated to specific contracts.
It's unclear what the actual point of contention is, mostly because there is no available evidence that a commission would jeopardize open cases. Milwaukee County District Attorney John T. Chisholm told the Sun that he'd "never had a situation where sensitive case information has been disclosed, and certainly not any victim information being disclosed that would compromise their security."
Mosby's predecessor, Gregg Bernstein, whom Mosby defeated in a 2014 election, has publicly agreed that the program is an important one, and said that he did not think there was a risk of sensitive information on open cases being leaked.
"Here in Baltimore, where you have shootings and homicides that are in very concentrated areas in the city, and therefore have often the same people or same groups involved in it, any analysis of trends in why shootings and homicides are occurring can be helpful in stopping that," Bernstein told the Sun. "So much of the violence we see is retaliatory, so if you can bring in different disciplines to look at that, that's a good thing."
Politics are no doubt a factor ahead of a 2016 mayoral election, as Mosby's controversial prosecution of the Gray case, celebrated by advocates but criticized by some experts as overreaching (which, indeed, is the norm for many prosecutions), continues.
"The election is next year," emails Lester Spence, a professor of political science at John Hopkins University. "Policing will be the issue."
So, likely, will gun violence among civilians. The city's anti-violence initiatives have "lost momentum" across the board in the aftermath of Gray's killing and the riots, according to the Sun, which points to the firing of Police Commissioner Anthony Batts and resignation of head of the city's Ceasefire program, who complained of insufficient resources.
Spence notes that Baltimore City Councilman Nick Mosby, the state's attorneys' husband, is one of many possible candidates who could challenge a politically-weakened Mayor Rawlings-Blake in 2016.
Both the state's attorney and mayor may both take heat not only for the spike in gun violence but also for the police department's declining clearance rate in homicide cases. The former Sun reporter and The Wire creator David Simon has argued that former State's Attorney Bernstein laid the groundwork for a spike in homicides by making it harder to bring charges, thus reducing the number of arrests and frustrating a deterrence effect.
Donald F. Norris, director of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, says that he has heard that there is a "a breach between the mayor and the state's attorney that could at least partly be explained by" the upcoming election. "And also what I'm hearing from others is that the state's attorneys office may be concerned about the lack of competent management out of the mayor's office over the whole crime issue" and would not want to be part of a program that "might fail."
At present, the Homicide Review Commission's prospects appear dismal at a time when Baltimore residents face violence perpetrated by both police and fellow civilians. City officials have an obligation to address both.