City begins shift to community policing method

January 13, 2007|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,Sun reporter

Baltimore law enforcement officials have increasingly been conducting "call-ins" in which they meet with hard-core criminals, warn them of long federal prison sentences and try to scare them away from ever picking up guns or drugs again.

The tactic is part of a new approach that city police and other agencies have been moving toward in a subtle shift away from the zero-tolerance policing championed by the outgoing administration of Mayor Martin O'Malley, and toward models of community policing that have had success in Boston, Chicago and elsewhere across the country.

Some aspects of the plan, such as having federal prosecutors take over serious gun cases, have been a part of both O'Malley's crime-fighting strategies and new ones that have begun to emerge.

But other initiatives - such as evolving anti-gang and gun violence reduction strategies - represent a change in direction for the Police Department. It is an ambitious undertaking that will require unprecedented cooperation between all levels of the criminal justice system to target violent offenders, a small number of whom are believed to be responsible for most serious crime.

The idea is that once a person is identified, police, prosecutors, parole and probation officers and social service workers bring the full weight of their offices to pressure offenders into giving up their criminal lifestyle.

Baltimore police and other leaders tried a similar plan - called Operation Safe Neighborhoods - in the late 1990s, supported by city State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy. Criminologist David Kennedy studied Baltimore's culture of homicide and concluded that there were patterns to the killings that could be understood and prevented.

But the initiative - dubbed at the time the most ambitious effort to stem killings that then topped 300 a year - fell apart as different agencies struggled to work together, and O'Malley came into office and chose a policing strategy modeled after New York City's aggressive enforcement of "quality of life" offenses.

Killings have dropped in the city since but remain high, with 275 people killed last year. This year, 15 people have been killed in the first 12 days, compared with eight at the same time in 2006.

Police Commissioner Leonard D. Hamm said yesterday that he believed the different programs and approaches the department will focus on this year will work better now because several public agencies and the incoming mayor, Sheila Dixon, "are on board with it.

"We have the right people, at the right place, at the right time, and it's all about relationships," Hamm said. "This time, we're not going to lose it."

Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein said he also is optimistic but warned that crime will not end overnight.

"It's going to take a long-term effort, and it's going to require continued coordination," he said. "The problem didn't develop overnight. It took decades to get this bad, and it's going to take a while over a coordinated period to improve."

Ruffin Brown III, spokesman for Dixon, said the incoming mayor expects to talk about her plans for public safety and crime-fighting next week, after she takes office Thursday. "She does support the slight shift to a more community-based, interagency approach," Brown said. "She's not giving up on aggressive policing where it has shown to be effective but has made it clear that there needs to be a balance between that approach and the community-based approach."

The current call-ins conducted by police are part of an approach organized by the U.S. attorney's office, called Maryland Exile.

Thursday night, a Baltimore police commander stood before a group of about 25 men with lengthy criminal records and narrated as he screened surveillance camera footage that showed people being arrested for drugs. He repeatedly told the audience invited to the Southern District: "We can watch you."

Two federal prosecutors warned the men - almost all considered "armed career criminals" or "career offenders" under U.S. law - that their next arrest with a gun or drugs would likely land them in federal prison for decades.

"We want you to spread the word that the shootings and the violence is going to stop," prosecutor Jason Weinstein told the group. "Either you're going to stop it on your own and you're going to put down the guns yourselves, or we're going to stop it for you. And we're going to put you away for what will seem the rest of your life. For some of you, it will be the rest of your life."

Hamm told the men, targeted for their history of criminality in Cherry Hill: "I have marshaled all the forces of the federal government, the state government and the city government to make Cherry Hill safe."

While credited with a significant reduction in violent crime over the past several years, the Police Department's law enforcement efforts under O'Malley have drawn criticism from civil libertarians and city residents who complained of heavy-handed police tactics.

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