BALTIMORE — Vanessa Freund, a government compliance officer, is accustomed to the sex workers who have long walked her neighborhood. She recognizes their faces, the corners they frequent and the hours they work.

Yet Freund still finds herself astonished at moments by what she encounters. More than once, she said, motorists have solicited her as she walked her dog. More recently, she saw a man having sex in a car parked on her block of modest rowhouses, she said. It was 4 p.m.

Freund’s frustration over the ever-present sex trade deepened recently when Baltimore’s lead prosecutor, seeking to focus resources on violent crime, announced that her office would no longer pursue certain misdemeanor cases such as drug possession and prostitution.

In a city notorious for open-air drug markets and gun carnage, Freund said State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby’s pronouncement angered her and triggered “a little feeling of hopelessness” about the future of Highlandtown, her neighborhood on the city’s southeast side.

“What are we doing here?” she asked.

Mosby’s announcement that she would treat petty offenses as behavioral health issues formalized a shift she introduced a year ago to keep jails from overcrowding during the pandemic. Mayor Brandon Scott has endorsed the strategy, as have law enforcement and civil rights leaders who say prosecuting misdemeanors diverts resources needed to stem violence and punishes disproportionate numbers of Black people.

Yet, to residents in the Baltimore neighborhoods where crime and illicit activity often exist alongside the routines of day-to-day life, Mosby’s shift in tactics is viewed with anxiety and trepidation, as well as, in some corners, a willingness to try something new, if only because nothing has seemed to work.

In interviews, few residents said they support the zero-tolerance approach to policing the city adopted in the past, a policy many blame for inciting the 2015 riot that exploded after Freddie Gray suffered fatal injuries while in police custody.

But neighborhood leaders worry that Mosby’s policy amounts to a green light for more crime — petty and otherwise.

“What’s the next announcement, they’re not going to arrest the dealer if he has less than a certain quantity?” said Willard Dixon, president of a community organization in Park Heights, where there have been several homicides in recent months. “How far does this go? I don’t understand how you uphold the law if you exempt criminal behavior.”

Six miles south, Dorothy Cunningham, 63, leader of the community organization in Irvington, a predominantly Black neighborhood, stood outside her rowhouse. On her lawn rests a plaque memorializing her 16-year-old grandson, Markell, who had visions of going to college before he was shot to death two years ago.

“It makes me sick to my stomach,” Cunningham said of Mosby’s policy change.

A retired facilities manager, Cunningham said she knows that police have harassed Black residents and that Black people populate the criminal justice system in disparate numbers. But she is mainly concerned with what she sees when she walks her neighborhood — the young men who she says buy and sell drugs, transactions she describes as “the smaller crimes that lead to the bigger things, the shootings and the killings.”

“If you’re out breaking the law, there are consequences, and it doesn’t matter what color you are,” she said. “This policy is like giving them a free ticket to do what they want.”

In need of a fresh approach

Mosby, now in her second term, first gained national attention in 2015 when she brought charges against the six police officers who had custody of Gray. None was convicted, exposing Mosby to criticism that she overcharged the officers.

At moments during her tenure, Mosby has faced questions about her extensive travel, though the Maryland State Ethics Commission found no wrongdoing, her office announced last week.

Separately, federal investigators recently subpoenaed campaign and financial records belonging to her and her husband, Nick J. Mosby, Baltimore’s city council president, a subject raised at the news conference when she announced she was formalizing her office’s new approach to misdemeanors.

“I’m not going to discuss that matter,” Mosby said, referring the question to her attorney before returning to her talking points. Instead, she cited a raft of statistics from the past year — drops in violent crime and 911 calls “about drug use, public intoxication and sex work” — that she said showed the merit of the policy shift.

Mosby’s approach echoes liberal policy changes in an array of cities, including New York, Los Angeles and Dallas, where prosecutors are no longer pursuing minor crimes such as drug possession, trespassing and loitering. Two years ago, she announced her office would no longer prosecute marijuana offenses.

“There is no public safety value in prosecuting these offenses,” she said, adding that targeting the misdemeanors breeds “mistrust of the criminal justice system” and would divert “the limited resources we have to prosecute crimes that threaten public safety.”

Her office will still pursue some misdemeanor charges, including second-degree assault, petty theft and disorderly conduct. For drug users and sex workers, her office is collaborating with community organizations, including Baltimore Crisis Response Inc., to provide housing and mental health and substance abuse services.

Kobi Little, president of Baltimore’s NAACP, said he empathizes with residents who have been “victimized by violence” and seek “solutions that bring them relief.” But he said traditional policing strategies have “given us what we have now in terms of crime and racial and economic injustice.”

“I don’t want it in my community,” he said of sex work and drug use. “But I don’t think arresting them is the answer. The cold hard truth is that the policies people want to remain in place have not worked.”

For years, Baltimore’s leaders have faced daunting challenges that include poorly performing public schools, blight, widespread heroin and crack addiction, and corruption scandals that forced out two mayors and tarnished the police department. No issue has dominated civic discourse as much as gun violence, as homicides have surpassed 300 in each of the past six years.

The decline in violent crime over the past year in Baltimore — the data Mosby cites to explain her policy shift — occurred as other large cities experienced dramatic increases in homicides and shootings.

Yet skeptics of Mosby’s new policy question the usefulness of data compiled during the pandemic. For example, street robberies fell by more than 40 percent, perhaps because there were fewer opportunities with people more likely to remain at home, said Jason Johnson, a former Baltimore deputy police commissioner who heads the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund.

Without opportunities to arrest drug users and sex workers, Johnson said, police officers lose access to “lower level people” who provide information “that helps them close cases or develop information.”

“How do you get to the dealers if the users are immune from police interaction?” he asked.

However, Mike Hilliard, a retired Baltimore police major whom Mosby invited to speak at her news conference about the policy change, said building a network of confidential informants is more effective for gathering intelligence than low-level arrests that end up “alienating the community.”

“Short-term it works, long-term you’re screwed,” Hilliard said of using arrests for minor offenses as a way to get people to cooperate about more serious crimes. He suggested that civic groups “invest their time and treasure” in organizing neighborhood walks and patrols to discourage crime rather than “dump all our problems on the men and women in police suits.”

“Locking people up won’t prevent crime,” he said.

But abandoning that tactic concerns business leaders such as Scott Dorsey, a Baltimore developer who worries about the signal it sends to potential investors and to crime-wary tourists and suburbanites afraid to visit the city.

“There’s nothing about not enforcing petty crime that draws people,” he said. “It’s not going to attract businesses, and economic growth is critical because most of our social problems are directly linked to a lack of prosperity. It’s just going to drive people away.”

Marvin “Doc” Cheatham, 70, a community leader in west Baltimore, lives a few blocks from the epicenter of the 2015 riot. Starved for investment, the neighborhood has been the site of dozens of homicides and shootings in recent years.

At this point, Cheatham said, he is desperate for a fresh approach.

“You go for the stars when you have nothing else to shoot for,” he said.

'What's my recourse?'

Jay Steinmetz, the founder of a chain automation company, was in his office the other day in Highlandtown, where he invested $5 million a couple of years ago to convert a former garment factory into his headquarters.

Steinmetz clicked on security camera video footage that showed two men using the alley outside his office as an open-air toilet. Another video showed a man circling a car and checking the door handles, apparently hoping to gain access.

Steinmetz said he is sympathetic to the social and historical forces driving Mosby’s policy, but he worries “it’s going to make things worse for me.”

“What’s my recourse?” he asked. “What is the recourse for a businessperson trying to stop something that isn’t a criminal assault?”

A mix of largely White and Latino residents, Highlandtown is a historically blue-collar neighborhood that has drawn young professionals in recent years.

In addition to sex work and pockets of drug dealing, there have also been a rash of more serious incidents recently, including the fatal stabbing of a man as he skateboarded with his 5-year-old daughter. Five days later, another man was killed after three men dragged him from his vehicle during a carjacking.

To some residents, the petty and serious crimes are an almost indistinguishable blur that gives them a grinding sense of unease.

“No one wants to walk outside and see blood on their sidewalk,” Nick Kirley, the leader of Highlandtown’s community association, said as he stood near the scene of the slashing now marked by candles and a heart-shaped balloon.

No one wants to see sex workers, either, he said.

“When it’s an abstract concept, it’s easy to be liberal about it,” he said. “I celebrate diversity, I love city life, and I consider myself easygoing. But no one wants black or gray market transactions going on in front of their house.

“I feel like the social contract is crumbling before our eyes.”