Who Wants to Run the Deadliest Big City in America?

While Baltimore’s murder rate is now higher than it was when O’Malley won election in 1999 by promising to crack down on crime, the politics of policing have shifted. None of the candidates running this year have proposed a return to zero tolerance. Vignarajah, who’s probably the most conservative of the six major Democratic candidates, has ruled out anything resembling a return to stop and frisk. “I think all of us agree that the policies of mass incarceration and zero tolerance in the early days of Baltimore’s war on drugs were failed policies,” he told me.

Instead, most of the candidates have called for implementing a strategy that Dixon backed when she was mayor, known as focused deterrence. More recently, the strategy has also been embraced by Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison. Focused deterrence has helped New Orleans—where Harrison was police superintendent before coming to Baltimore last year—and other violent cities bring down their murder rates.

Harrison laid out how it worked on a sunny morning a couple of weeks before the pandemic shuttered much of the city. “Focused deterrence is about, basically, in layman’s terms, the carrot and the stick,” he told the Greater Baltimore Committee, a business group, on the 17th floor of an office tower overlooking the harbor. The strategy is built around identifying the relatively small number of people in a city most likely to commit violent crimes. Those of them on parole or probation are compelled to come to a meeting, known as a call-in, with top police officers, prosecutors, social workers and community members. There they’re given an ultimatum: Stop shooting and accept help, or we’ll come after you with everything we’ve got.

“That is how you drive down murder,” Harrison said. “By giving the young men options to do something different but bringing the options to them—not telling them to go seek them out but bringing the options to them. This is what we did in New Orleans.” He recalled what he told those who came to the call-ins: “If you need a GED or if you can’t read or if you need a high school diploma, all those folks are here to help you today. If you need relocation because you live in a gang area and the only way out is to relocate, housing is here to help you do that today. If you need drug addiction help, mental illness help, people are here to help you with that today.”

There’s substantial evidence that focused deterrence—also known as Ceasefire or group violence intervention—works. A meta-review of research on 30 different crime- and violence-reduction strategies conducted by Harvard researchers Thomas Abt and Christopher Winship in 2016 found that focused deterrence was the most effective. In his book, Bleeding Out, Abt estimated that a newly elected Baltimore mayor could save 788 lives by implementing focused deterrence and other strategies over two four-year terms, allowing for no reduction in murders in the first year as the strategy is set up. He described the estimate as “extremely conservative.”

But the strategy has a troubled history in Baltimore—and only Dixon has been able to pull it off.

“Baltimore had the worst law enforcement politics I’ve ever seen,” David Kennedy, a criminologist who pioneered the strategy in Boston in the 1990s, wrote in his memoir, Don’t Shoot. “The three main players, the police department, the state’s attorney’s office, and the U.S. attorney’s office, saw crime-control as a zero sum game: anybody gets any credit for anything, the others lose.” Kennedy came to Baltimore in 1998 and spent more than two years working with police and prosecutors to set up a focused deterrence strategy. It collapsed after O’Malley was elected. “O’Malley didn’t want it, didn’t like it, wanted New York-style zero tolerance in Baltimore,” Kennedy wrote. “He got it. The Baltimore Police Department started arresting everybody in sight.”

When Dixon became mayor, she cast aside O’Malley’s approach, which he’d modeled on the zero-tolerance tactics used in New York under Mayor Rudy Giuliani, in favor of a more targeted policing strategy. “I knew that zero tolerance was not the route that we needed to go, that we needed to focus on the most violent offenders, that we needed to bring all of our public safety entities to the table,” she told me.

She embraced a focused-deterrence strategy that Maryland’s U.S. attorney, Rod Rosenstein, had started setting up in O’Malley’s last year as mayor. Rosenstein—who would go on to serve as deputy attorney general overseeing Robert Mueller’s investigation—and one of his deputies, Jason Weinstein, modeled their strategy on Kennedy’s. The strategy relied on aggressive prosecution of what they termed “violent repeat offenders” paired with call-ins held in churches and community centers. Sometimes Weinstein would hold them in neighborhoods in which he’d recently sent a violent repeat offender to federal prison, to give his warnings more credibility. “We would say, ‘We’re standing up here because we don’t want to prosecute you,’” Weinstein told me. They delivered the ultimatum as some of the young men’s mothers, girlfriends and neighbors looked on.

The strategy worked. The number of murders fell to 234 in 2008 and held steady at 238 the following year, even as the number of arrests declined. The call-ins played “a significant part in driving down violent crime,” Fred Bealefeld, whom Dixon tapped as her police commissioner and who helped lead call-ins himself, told me.

After Dixon resigned in 2010, the call-ins continued under her successor, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. The following year, the number of murders fell to less than 200 for the first time since the 1970s. But the strategy started coming apart after Bealefeld retired in 2012. Two aides deeply involved in implementing focused deterrence under Dixon, who had initially stayed on under Rawlings-Blake, left around the same time as Bealefeld, along with a crucial O’Malley aide. The collaboration required to keep the strategy going eroded. “People didn’t understand what it took to sustain it,” Bealefeld said.

Baltimore tried to revive the strategy, without success. Kennedy returned in 2014 after Rawlings-Blake read his memoir and recruited him. He started holding call-ins in the police department’s Western District, which he described in an interview as “extremely successful.” (Kennedy also met Vignarajah, who was a prosecutor in the state’s attorney’s office at the time. He gave $500 to Vignarajah’s mayoral campaign earlier this year.) He’d just started expanding into the Eastern District—the other one of the two most violent in the city—“when Freddie Gray died,” he said. “That was the end of that brief but hopeful moment in which there seemed to be enough common ground amongst the principals to do work.”

It’s hard to tease out how much of the decline in the murder rate under Dixon was due to her leadership. Others certainly contributed. O’Malley, who remained so intensely focused on crime in Baltimore as governor that he got daily reports on the number of homicides in the city, directed state authorities to step up their supervision of those on parole and probation in Baltimore. Rosenstein was already working to build out his focused deterrence effort when Dixon took office. But Dixon backed the idea once she took office even though she hadn’t come up with it herself—something other mayors haven’t done.

Consider the experience of Melvin Russell, a police colonel who tried to set up his own, more modest version of focused deterrence in the aftermath of Gray’s death. He started holding call-ins, working with a local judge, the state’s attorney office, and eventually some police officers. But Pugh and the police department’s leadership never bought into the strategy. Pugh’s chief of staff told the city council in 2017 that the police department wasn’t interested in focused deterrence anymore. “We were pretty much mocked, laughed at, shamed,” Russell told me. “We just didn’t get the institutional support.” He left the department last year after Harrison arrived rather than accept a demotion. The call-ins he’d been holding have stopped.

The collapse of Russell’s effort disappointed the Reverend Alvin Hathaway, senior pastor of Baltimore’s Union Baptist Church, where Russell had hosted some of his call-ins. Hathaway urged the next mayor to return to focused deterrence. “The next administration should revisit that call-in and exponentially scale it up,” he said.

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