At the end of 2017, Baltimore was staring at a grisly statistic: 342 homicides that year, which translated to the highest murder rate in the city’s history. Seemingly unable to control the violence on the streets, the Baltimore Police Department turned to a tool that appeared to be getting results in Chicago.
The following summer, Baltimore rolled out its version of what Chicago calls Strategic Decision Support Centers in two of the city’s most violent police districts. Now the centers, poised for an expansion, have lost the support of City Council President Brandon Scott, who is likely to become mayor in November.
Baltimore finds itself in a position familiar to many cities with high rates of gun violence and a strained relationship between the community and the police. Scott — who came to politics from community activism, and ran on the promise to reduce gun violence — has expressed deep reservations about the intelligence centers.
With voters desperate to reduce shootings, three of the campaign’s black front-runners are embracing aggressive law enforcement tactics that could perpetuate racial disparities.
Staffed by a variety of officers and crime analysts, SDSCs are real-time intelligence hubs designed to keep police informed about what’s happening on the ground and respond to crimes as they occur. The centers collect data on shots fired within the zones where they operate, gather information from informants on the street, and track things like the anniversary of homicides and even weather patterns. The Police Department uses the intelligence to inform how they deploy officers, and shares information with violence interruption groups so they can dispatch the street workers who try to intervene before the bullets fly.
“If they saw one of our young people doing something wrong, they could easily make an arrest,” said James “JT” Timpson, the director of safety and community partnerships at Roca Baltimore, a violence interruption program. “But they would come to us and say ‘I saw your guy doing something wrong you really need to have a talk with them.’”
Baltimore’s SDSCs cover the Eastern and Western police districts, which have ranked among the city’s most violent for more than a decade. In 2017, they accounted for 104 of the city’s 342 homicides. In 2019, the first full year the centers were operating, those same two districts accounted for 112, or almost one-third of the city’s homicides. This year, only 43 homicides have been recorded in the Eastern and Western districts, but other parts of the city have become hotspots.
But leaders in Baltimore were impressed by the early results, which mirrored what Chicago saw in its first year using SDSCs: A 33 percent reduction in shootings in districts with active centers, compared to a 14 percent reduction citywide.
For street outreach workers like Timpson the success showed in areas beyond the data. He said he was surprised by the level of cooperation between Roca and the officers at the centers. And it was their sharing of information that stopped beefs on the street from flaring up into violence. “I can say this definitively: The information they gave us helped save some young people’s lives,” Timpson told The Trace.
The perceived success of the program prompted the Police Department to propose doubling the number of SDSC’s in 2020. But the plan was shot down in budget negotiations in early June. Protests had broken out across the country in response to George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis. Protesters in Baltimore painted Defund the Police on the street outside City Hall on June 15, while the City Council was in budget deliberations. The message they were hearing from the protesters was clear: It was time to shift some of the proposed $550 million for policing to other needs in the city.
Around the same time, a political power shift occurred as Scott won the Democratic primary for mayor, putting him in line to be the next mayor. Scott had long been a critic of police spending, and he led the council in cutting more than $22 million in increases from the police budget.
He said he can’t be sure the program is reducing crime because he has not been provided data that shows the centers are reducing shootings, homicides, or other violent crimes.
“You can’t start a new thing if you don’t know if the one that you have is working,” Scott said. “When you are in a budget year, when you are in the biggest global pandemic ever, you can’t give this department support when they haven’t analyzed whether this has worked.”
“There was no official data analysis provided on how the program was effective,” he added.
Daniel Webster, the director of the Center for Gun Policy and Research at Johns Hopkins University, said: “To me [the centers] are spot-on with what Baltimore needs. The city needs intel driven responses to the most serious violent crime.”
The freezing of the intelligence centers comes at a politically charged time in both the city and the nation. Police department budgets are under great scrutiny from activists, and in a political sea change, from policymakers. Los Angeles, New York City, and Philadelphia have moved ahead with efforts to freeze police spending increases. In Los Angeles and New York, the money would be redirected to social services and community-led gun violence prevention, respectively. But those efforts have fallen short in many cities with high rates of violent crime. Washington, D.C., and Chicago, for instance, have balked at freezing police funding.
Around the time of the budget vote, Scott also sent a letter to Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young demanding a task force be assembled to reform public safety in Baltimore. Scott has called for a “total reimagining” of policing. He has given out few details about what he’d like to see, but some in Baltimore believe he might be signaling a shift for even more support for programs like Safe Streets and Ceasefire, which work in looser coordination with the police. Scott has said the reason those programs haven’t proven themselves in some places is a lack of funding. “We have to think about how we can build up those community organizations,” he said. “That’s the tough work, that’s not the sexy portion.”
For Scott, the funding cut was a long time coming. He had called for a “reckoning” over the police budget for years. “Sometimes the stars line up for you,” Scott said. “This is the perfect time to do it.”