Reducing city killings requires unified effort

Baltimore: Prosecutors' feud endangers planned interagency attack against homicidal drug thugs

Getting away with Murder

August 01, 1999

IF BALTIMORE is to slash its shockingly high homicide rate, police and prosecutors must crack down on the estimated 4,000 violent drug thugs, who are responsible for nearly half of all killings in the city.

An unprecedented plan to do just that is in danger of unraveling.

Not because anyone doubts the wisdom of the strategy, but because prosecutors cannot agree on whether the bulk of firearms violations should be handled in federal or local courts.

U.S. Attorney Lynne A. Battaglia fears that the sheer volume of firearms cases could swamp federal courts. Ms. Battaglia's concerns emerged at the last minute, scuttling a scheduled press conference about an interagency crackdown after nine months of planning.

Although fatal shootings and other killings have decreased this year after exceeding 300 for nine consecutive years, Baltimore is still among the nation's most murderous cities.

Prosecutors squabbling

That's why it's alarming that prosecutors' squabbles now threaten the planned crusade by city, state and federal agencies against Baltimore's most vicious killers. Charitable foundations and the state have earmarked $640,000 to finance the anti-violence crackdown. It is part of a wider multimillion-dollar effort to promote safer conditions in the city.

Whatever the snags hindering cooperation, leaders must overcome them quickly so that momentum and painstaking groundwork are not lost.

According to the plan, the U.S. attorney's office is key to the operation. It is to give top priority to prosecuting gun offenders identified by the interagency group.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, for its part, pledges to expedite gun tracing. The Drug Enforcement Agency is to assist in prosecuting offenders in federal courts, as is the FBI.

In all, 14 agencies -- from the Maryland State Police to the city housing authority -- promise to coordinate their resources so that chronic violent offenders can be prosecuted and locked away.

This initiative is now in limbo.

Interagency working groups, however, continue with planning. Last week, the Police Department launched its piece of the program by cracking down on gun thugs.

None of this means much unless offenders are quickly and effectively prosecuted.

"It's been easier to get each agency refocused than to get interagency cooperation," said Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.

Asked when the crusade might be officially launched, Hathaway C. Ferebee, executive director of the Safe and Sound Campaign, said "from two weeks to two months."

Cooperation in Boston

Late last year, when planning began for this interagency crackdown on homicidal gun violence, hopes ran high. A similar program in Boston reduced homicides from 152 in 1990 to 35 last year.

One of the chief architects of the Boston accomplishment, Harvard University criminologist David M. Kennedy, was brought here as a consultant for the nonprofit Safe and Sound Campaign.

Mr. Kennedy quickly realized significant differences between the cities, and, as a result, the timetable for launching the anti-violence crackdown began sliding. Mayor Schmoke had initially hoped to introduce the plan at two citywide meetings by March or April. Those meetings never took place.

Complicating matters was the re-emergence of a vicious Cherry Hill gang, the Veronica Avenue Boys. Thirty-two of its members were arrested last year. Many ringleaders were sent to jail, and the public housing project where most lived was bulldozed.

Yet by June of this year, gang activity and gunfire had returned to Cherry Hill, one of the targets of planned crackdown.

In Boston, some 60 gangs with roughly 1,300 members, had been responsible for 60 percent of homicides. In 1995, a task force of federal, state and city agencies was convened and gave those gangs an ultimatum:

Unless the killings and gun violence stopped, those involved would be prosecuted for every crime and infraction imaginable, including parole and probation violations.

After some initial resistance, a cease-fire was negotiated with the gangs. The deal: They could operate as long as killing was stopped. The truce still holds.

Aside from law enforcement agencies and prosecutors, churches and community groups were instrumental in making the Boston model work. The approach was successfully duplicated in Minneapolis.

Creating a successful model for Baltimore was far more complex, Mr. Kennedy found.

His researchers identified some 325 "drug groups," involving roughly 4,000 people. In 1997, 46 percent of homicide suspects were members of those drug groups, and 59 percent of the homicides took place near open-air drug markets.

Although a number of innocent Baltimoreans die each year in gunfire, researchers concluded most homicide victims and suspects had long criminal records.

Of 303 people killed in 1997, 74 percent had juvenile or adult criminal records averaging 8.5 charges; 35 percent were involved in drug groups.

Of the 210 known suspects in those homicides, 89 percent had criminal records with an average of 9.6 charges.

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