Stopping Gun Violence In Baltimore: What Works And What Doesn't

Preserving scrutiny in the midst of gun violence.
By Ben Smith | Nov 27, 2017 |
By Ben Smith | Nov 27, 2017 |

This past Spring, I wrote about how Baltimore had suffered its highest homicide rates ever over the last two years. Moreover, compared to last year, 2017’s homicide rate is up 26%, with shootings up 24% and robberies up 20%. In spite of this unacceptable trend, the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice has lost roughly half of its staff, including its Director. With 72% of homicides nationally and up to 90% of homicides in America’s more violence beset cities being committed by guns, the conversation around violence in Baltimore has understandably focused on getting guns off the street. This week, we look at policies that actually accomplish that goal.

What Doesn’t Work

Before talking about what policies do reduce gun violence, it’s worth looking at what policies don’t reduce gun violence. The goal in doing so is to discourage supporters of ineffective strategies from continuing to champion them as if they are supplements to the proven strategies outlined below. Far from being a supplement to or a benign distraction from proven strategies, competing programs rob proven strategies of the attention and resources they need to function at full capacity.

Whenever available, meta-studies are one of the most important tools we can use to assess which public programs get results. Meta-studies review all credible reports on a topic, weigh the strength of the supporting data, and give us a portrait of prevailing wisdom divorced from blindered individual views.

A 2012 meta-study was conducted on prior gun violence reduction research, and offers a wealth of important takeaways. It found that stiffer prison sentences for crime in general, waiting periods and background checks for gun purchases, gun buyback programs, public safety campaigns, and safe storage laws are the least effective ways to address gun violence. These findings may be surprising and counterintuitive, but we owe it to victims of gun violence to value the strength of research over our own gut-feelings. Though there are certainly studies that can be found to support any one of these approaches, such studies are like those that call climate change into question — their outlier status in meta-studies demonstrates how out of step they are with prevailing wisdom.

What Does Work

The meta-study by Arizona State University and the University of Cincinnatimentioned above offers a sliding scale of impact for gun violence prevention strategies. Improved law enforcement efforts were found to be the most significant opportunity to impact gun violence. Under that umbrella, “increased contact with police, probation officers and social workers — proved most effective at curtailing gun violence.” Alternative “policing strategies [such as hotspots policing] and community programs were moderately effective,” while “prosecutorial strategies — harsher sentences and restricted bail opportunities — showed the least promise.” In unpacking the meta-study’s conclusions, the Harvard Kennedy School explained:

The researchers conclude that “law enforcement programs are clearly more effective than gun laws.” They note that the “most effective programs combined both punitive and supportive strategies to effectively reduce gun violence…. The assessment of [gun violence prevention programs] provides clear guidance concerning which approaches are most likely to result in enhanced public safety — an outcome that should be attractive to policy makers regardless of their ideological persuasion.”

One other policy is worth special note, as many advocates (including the New York Times editorial board) see it as the next step for New York City’s precipitous decline in crime over the last several years: gun court. In spite of public outcry leading street stops by police to fall from a high of 685,000 in 2011 to less than 46,000 in 2014 (a 93% decline with the greatest decline coming in poor and minority-majority neighborhoods), both violent and nonviolent crime continued a decade long fall during that period. In fact, New York’s crime rates are 90% lower than their levels in 1980. Thus, New York City has managed to balance becoming a less heavily policed city while continuing to reduce crime. It has done so by cracking down on the worst crimes and focusing on the strongest criminal cases, while deemphasizing policies that saddle low-level offenders with a criminal record and increased proximity to the criminal justice system. Gun courts utilize the wisdom found in this balance.

Mayor Bloomberg began experimenting with gun courts in Brooklyn in 2003. Gun court is reserved for repeat offenders, who are “relatively few in number but blamed by the police for most gun violence.” Under Mayor de Blasio’s expansion in January 2016, it identifies the “strongest cases out of the gate,” and sends them to “two judges in two courtrooms in State Supreme Court in Brooklyn.” Its goal is to “dispose of cases more quickly, to get high-risk repeat offenders off the street, with sentences appropriate to the seriousness of the crime, and not let low-priority offenders and bad cases languish in Rikers.” Which is to say, it quits wasting public resources on low-level crimes, and streamlines the application of heavy handed justice to those who pose genuine safety risks to the public. Mayor de Blasio paired the gun courts with a “Gun Violence Suppression Division of 200 police officers, mostly detectives, [who] handle illegal-gun cases and nothing else.”

Making Good on Baltimore’s Promise

The findings above make it clear that Baltimore need not rely on state or federal laws to make a dent in local gun violence. Baltimore is capable of investing heavily in a gun violence suppression task force and de-emphasizing low level arrests like New York City has. The City can also reallocate funding from our costly patrol-oriented police budget (well over $200 million) in favor of more lean, targeted, and impactful approaches like data-driven hotspots oriented policing.

As for the most promising gun violence reduction programs — those that focus on sustained interactions between former offenders, parole officers, social workers, and vulnerable neighborhoods— Baltimore has a program that [in theory] functions in a similar fashion: Safe Streets. Safe Streets employs returning citizens to aid in community organizing efforts in target neighborhoods throughout the City. Its community organizers work with high-risk youths and young adults to deescalate violent situations, and promote alternative paths to violence. Unfortunately, the Baltimore City Health Department-run program has experienced funding issues under Governor Hogan’s budgets, and leadership issues leading to a 2017 ATF allegation that a Safe Streets employee oversaw drug operations while on the job.

The funding that Safe Streets historically depends on, however, is well within City Government’s ability not just to fund, but to expand. By expanding the attention to and resources for programs like Safe Streets, it become easier to account for the lapses in management that led to the ATF allegation mentioned earlier. Such an investment is worthwhile, because as Dr. Leana Wen said last year, a “review by the Johns Hopkins University found Safe Streets ‘has had a larger effect on reducing nonfatal shootings than any other single public-safety strategy in Baltimore.’” Keep in mind, that level of impact comes from a $1 million program, relative to a Baltimore City Police Department budget that tallies nearly a half-billion dollars. Moreover, an expanded focus on Safe Streets could allow it to mesh with and implement similar efforts within the Baltimore City Police Department. Perhaps most important, when we invest in programs like Safe Streets, we are investing in basic models that demonstrate real results when wielded effectively, rather than wasting our time — while men and women continue to die — looking for silver bullets that simply do not exist. With homicides continuing to climb, it’s time Baltimore invested in results.

[This article was originally published on the blog Ideal City.]