Debbie Ramsey, a former Baltimore City Police detective, is a speaker for the Law Enforcement Action Partnership.
I was alarmed to read that Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) is directing Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D) to begin prosecuting more cases in Baltimore City. By bypassing city stakeholders, the governor is missing an opportunity to work with community members to effectively reverse the epidemic of violence, and instead is relying on the same tactics we know don’t work.
I served with the Baltimore Police Department for 12 years, first as a community policing and patrol officer and then as a detective. To address our city’s heartbreaking struggle with violence, I collaborated frequently with state and federal agencies, but the most important stakeholder was the local community. Why do we charge a suspect in 1 one out of 4 homicide investigations? Because investigations start and end with interviewing independent witnesses — in other words, the community. Community members will not come forward with pertinent information if they do not trust us.
Right now the community’s trust in us is at rock bottom because of corruption and specialized task forces that routinely stop and search practically every young man in certain neighborhoods. When these task forces make unnecessary stops and arrests, they are undoing the hard work our community policing and patrol officers put in to build relationships. Community members are not going to be more accommodating when state police and prosecutors come knocking on their doors. In fact, increasing state prosecutions may exacerbate police-community mistrust. We don’t need a different agency doing the law enforcement; we need communities to trust that we are working with them instead of against them.
When it comes to stopping violence, prevention is by far the most effective approach. Though Hogan announced this directive outside a boxing gym that is a pillar of West Baltimore, his directive ignored that rec centers and youth jobs are essential to stopping conflict before it starts. Last year, my nonprofit, Unified Efforts, launched a youth learning and activity center in the same Penn North neighborhood. This center will prevent violence both by giving children a productive environment outside of school hours and keeping them out of the fray. We need the governor to fund prevention programs, not simply wait for violence to occur so we can lock up another generation.
Another key program to prevent homicide is Safe Streets, a Baltimore program based on the national Cure Violence model. This program treats violence like a disease that is contagious, recognizing that when individuals are exposed to violence, they often perpetuate and normalize it as part of their community. Cure Violence uses outreach workers with similar backstories to those they work with in high-crime communities to interrupt the cycle of violence before it takes root.
A Johns Hopkins University evaluation found that the program achieved an astonishing 56 percent reduction in killings and 34 percent reduction in shootings in one Baltimore community and changed the norms around violence across nearby communities. If Hogan truly wants to help drive down violence, he could provide us with the necessary resources to roll out and sustain these programs all over Baltimore City.
He could also look to Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, who has prioritized violence prevention by redirecting her office’s resources from marijuana offenses and supporting efforts to make addiction a public health issue, not a criminal-justice one.
As a lifelong resident of Baltimore City, I know that this community is enterprising, passionate about solving the challenges of violence and eager to invest in new solutions. I also know we cannot simply arrest and prosecute our way out of violence. When we throw our limited public safety resources at the wrong solution, we endanger everyone’s safety.
I ask Hogan and our state and city leaders to invest in preventing violence before it happens rather than focus on punishment after the fact. We must work together with those who are most familiar with Baltimore City’s challenges to reduce violent crime and give our youths a chance at a better future.