On a recent Wednesday evening, Jeremy Biddle stood in front of three dozen chairs spaced far apart in West Baltimore’s Robert C. Marshall Recreation Center and tried to sell a plan that city leaders hoped would finally break Baltimore’s record level of violence.
Biddle, a consultant Baltimore hired to help shape Mayor Brandon Scott’s crime plan, was holding the first of six community meetings across the city. City officials designed the sessions to convince residents that focused deterrence — a strategy that had failed in Baltimore twice in the last two decades — deserved another chance. Focused deterrence aims to reduce violent crimes by offering those closest to the front lines a choice: either stop the violence and accept assistance with housing, employment, and addiction counseling, or face severe legal consequences. Despite its history, Biddle assured Baltimoreans that it’s “a proven violence reduction strategy.”
What Biddle and Baltimore officials needed was for the community to have faith in the tactic. As he explained at the meeting, the Gun Violence Prevention Strategy would only work if people held in high regard by the young men and teenage boys closest to the violence could persuade them to pivot away from criminal actions that put them at risk. “The success of the strategy… hinges on the ability to deliver a credible community moral message against violence,” Biddle said. The city would need the community to help “co-produce public safety.”
But only about six people who didn’t have a professional connection to the crime plan or to City Hall had shown up that night. The Scott administration has said that getting community input is a major component of developing their Gun Violence Prevention Strategy, a plan the city is betting big on. Baltimore received $50 million from the American Rescue Plan to address crime, with the largest share of the money, $22 million, earmarked for reducing gun violence. As the city rolled out the plan, the public has been slow to embrace the idea of reviving focused deterrence. The Scott administration needs at least a few of them to play an integral part in making this third try successful.
Halfway through the first meeting, former Assistant Deputy Mayor for Operations Dan Sparaco noted the low turnout. To get there, Sparaco had walked through West Baltimore, the side of town where one third of Baltimore’s shootings and homicides occurred in 2021. “In a situation where the city is in such a profound crisis, this room should be filled,” he said.
Some blamed COVID-19 for closing City Hall to the public and chilling public participation in government. Others said the reliance on social media and email to promote the meetings was a mistake, since more than 40 percent of the city’s households don’t have a broadband connection, and 75,000 households lack a computer. And then there’s the sheer volume of violence in recent years. Since 2015, Baltimore has recorded more homicides than in any other six-year period. “People just want results,” said T.J. Smith, a former spokesperson for the Baltimore Police Department and 2020 candidate for mayor. “They want to know: ‘What are you going to do? How long will it take?’”
That weariness showed at the meetings, where the few citizens who bothered to attend met the plans to drive down shootings with apathy or doubt. “People here in the city are tired,” resident Anita Bryant, who works at the University of Maryland’s downtown Baltimore campus, told The Trace. “They don’t have the confidence level that things are going to change.”
During the recent surge in violence, since 2015, the city has also cycled through four mayors and five police commissioners — and almost as many crime plans. And now the city is attempting to revive a plan it first tried more than two decades ago.
Focused deterrence was developed by David Kennedy and Anthony Braga, two criminologists who argued that the bulk of violence in any city was driven by small groups of people. For these groups to change their behavior, they posited, three ingredients were necessary: the threat of prison time; services like housing, job training, and counseling to help group members transition away from a life of crime; and a plea from the community to stop the violence.
That last part is crucial. The community can demand change and shift the culture by setting different expectations. “It’s the offer of support and the expectation of new kinds of behavior,” Kennedy, who is advising Baltimore officials, told The Trace. And quality — getting just the right people involved — is more important than quantity, he said. He found guys with ties to the street, pastors, respected business leaders, and older women to be especially effective. As Biddle put it, “these guys are often more scared of their mothers than the cops.”
In the 1990s, the strategy Kennedy and Braga developed was credited with reversing violent crime in Boston so quickly that criminologists dubbed it the “Boston Miracle.” A few years later, the pair turned to Baltimore as the next place to test their theory. But Kennedy came up against then-Mayor Martin O’Malley, who viewed the slow timeline of focused deterrence as conflicting with his political aspirations. There was no Baltimore miracle, and Kennedy left town shortly after O’Malley took office and nixed the program.
In 2014, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake gave focused deterrence a second chance, but proved to be almost as impatient as O’Malley. Making matters worse, her administration didn’t deliver on the services it promised to participants in the focused deterrence program. If a person who wanted to leave behind a violent past wanted help with housing, that request would often run into long delays or go unfulfilled.
Those failures remain fresh in the memories of policymakers and residents. Bryant, who attended one of the recent community meetings, was a college student in Baltimore in the 1990s. The city, she said, “has done this before, and it didn’t work.”
Diane Williams has lived in Baltimore her whole life, and been active in neighborhood politics for three decades. She has seen city officials offer up promising programs that ultimately fail because they focused more on public relations than helping those in need. “It could be too much talk and not enough action,” Williams said after one of the community meetings. “The city is not reaching the people who need to be serviced, she added. “Those are the people on the corners. … Maybe you should go directly to them.”
City officials know they are fighting an uphill battle. Shantay Jackson, director of the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement, tried to assure everyone at the first community meeting that, this time, focused deterrence would be different. “We are very clear why we weren’t successful the last two times,” Jackson said. “We didn’t keep our promises.”
Now, Jackson said, Baltimore had Brandon Scott, a young mayor who campaigned on taking a holistic approach to quelling violent crime; a police commissioner, Michael Harrison, who is familiar with the strategy; a prosecutor, Marilyn Mosby, who is on board with the plan; and money from the American Rescue Plan.
The lack of community engagement in some of the early meetings worried Biddle, but it didn’t surprise him. The city plans to compensate the community members who implore the people at the front lines to stop the violence.
“It’s difficult work, it could be taxing emotionally,” Biddle said. “The role they [will] play in applying informal social control is valuable.”
The city’s focused deterrence plan will not be fully operational until early 2022. If successful, it could take two to three years for the plan to significantly decrease violence. “What we need to do and what we intend to do to rebuild that trust is to be open and honest about the progress we are making,” said Sunny Schnitzer, deputy mayor for public safety, “but also [be open] that this is going to be a long-term plan.”
Meanwhile, the surge in killings in early November sent Baltimore’s annual homicide tally above 300 for the seventh year in a row.
On November 18, 13-year-old Maliyah Turner was shot outside a recreation center in West Baltimore. She was pronounced dead hours later, marking the ninth homicide in a week. Scott delivered a message that has become familiar to Baltimoreans: He condemned Turner’s killing. He also asked the city’s residents to play an active role in responding to violence, tweeting: “We all have a role to play. Ask yourself, ‘What can I do or give of myself to improve Baltimore?’”