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We Need to Talk

City Attempts To Revive Operation Safe Neighborhoods, Which Has Flickered In And Out Of Existence Since

By Anna Ditkoff | Posted 10/18/2006

On the afternoon of Thursday, Oct. 12, the Baltimore City State's Attorney's Office sent out an interesting press release: It was a brief e-mail notification letting the media know about a "call-in" for violent offenders, an event described as "an opportunity for law enforcement and the community to speak directly to known perpetrators of crime with a joint request to end the violence and seek community assistance." The press release stated that the meeting would be held at the Northern Police District at Keswick Road and 34th Street, a long-empty former police station that is under renovation.

A call to Margaret Burns, spokeswoman for the State's Attorney's Office, revealed that the cryptic and confusing announcement was actually a hastily put together attempt to get the media to check out an old law-enforcement program, called Operation Safe Neighborhoods, that her office is trying to revive.

Operation Safe Neighborhoods was started in Baltimore in 1999, and it was modeled on a crime-fighting program in Boston called Operation Cease Fire, which helped that city attain a 70 percent drop in homicides over four years.

Operation Safe Neighborhoods is based on the work of criminologist David Kennedy, who did an 18-month study of violent crime in Baltimore that focused on the 303 homicides that took place in the city in 1997. Kennedy found that the majority of Baltimore's violent crime was perpetrated by roughly 4,000 "core criminals" and that 90 percent of the suspects in 1997's murders had been arrested 9.6 times on average, before they were charged with a homicide. Kennedy's plan for Baltimore was to bring together local, state, and federal law-enforcement agencies to identify the most violent repeat offenders and monitor them closely. The program called for addressing these "core criminals" at neighborhood call-ins, letting them know face-to-face what the consequences would be if they continued on the path of violent crime.

"The whole idea is to let the criminals in Baltimore know that they're not anonymous," Burns says. "We're all communicating about the violence and we will use all our tools in the toolbox, if you will, all the resources of the local, state, and federal law-enforcement agencies to aggressively prosecute people who are violating the law."

But the program is more than just a zero-tolerance plan. It also offers those wanting to escape the crime and drug culture a chance to get in touch with providers of services such as job placement, counseling, and drug treatment.

Between 20 and 28 people were sent to the Oct. 12 call-in, which actually took place at the Northern Police District station on Cold Spring Lane. (Burns says the original announcement listed the shuttered Keswick Road station as the location in error.) They were all instructed to report there by the Maryland Division of Parole and Probation, as part of their reporting requirements. Representatives from the Baltimore State's Attorney's Office, U.S. Attorney's Office, Baltimore Police Department, and other agencies addressed the attendees.

"You tell them that you're here because we believe that you're responsible for violence in your community and we want to give you a choice," Burns says, explaining how the meeting progressed. "You can stop committing violent crimes, and if you want to stop, then you need help getting out of a lifestyle that involves violence and there are services that are accessible or available to you."

In an April 2000 interview with The Sun, Kennedy described the program as a parental approach to crime. "It's what parents do," he told The Sun. "They say, `I'm going to love you, and there are going to be standards. I'm going to help you and I'm going to expect you to behave.'"

When the program kicked off in 1999, there was a lot of optimism about the impact it could have on the city. Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia Jessamy called it "the most important thing I will ever do," and then-Assistant State's Attorney Kim Morton heralded it as a "new day" in Baltimore crime fighting. Its implementation in specific crime-plagued neighborhoods had positive results. For example, according to an August 2001 Sun article, after the program was in place in Park Heights, shootings in the neighborhood dropped 74 percent between September 1999 and April 2000; homicides in the neighborhood went down 22 percent during the same time period. Improvements were also seen in Cherry Hill and Oliver following implementation of Operation Safe Neighborhoods in those areas.

But one of the programs greatest strengths appears to also be its greatest weakness. Operation Safe Neighborhoods is based largely on cooperation between various city, state, and federal agencies--agencies that don't have a strong track record of getting along in Baltimore.

From the beginning the program had trouble with cohesiveness. A July 1999 press conference to announce the plan was postponed because then-U.S. Attorney Lynne Battaglia backed out, according to a Sun article from that time. The Sun also reported that problems in the court system, particularly squabbling between police and prosecutors, made it so that "officials would be hard pressed to sell such a cooperative agreement with a straight face."

After an auspicious start, the program faltered. According to an August 2001 Sun story, this was largely due to a lack of support from Mayor Martin O'Malley. "He and Kennedy disagreed about the strategy's pace and its neighborhood-by-neighborhood approach," the story notes. "The call-ins and weekly homicide work-group meetings at the state's attorney's office petered out." It was a pattern that continued over the next several years: The program was repeatedly renewed, only to once again fade away.

In a November 2004 opinion piece in The Sun, Hathaway Ferebee, the executive director of Baltimore's Safe and Sound Campaign, which commissioned the study that Operation Safe Neighborhoods was based on, lamented this lack of consistency. "Operation Safe Neighborhoods is effective," she wrote. "But it has had little impact on our citywide numbers because there has yet to be a single coordinated effort to sustain this strategy over a long enough period to reap the rewards."

Now Operation Safe Neighborhoods is back again.

"The whole initiative has been re-energized by the U.S. Attorney's Office and the police department is fully on board," Burns says. But the relationships between the agencies involved continues to be strained--most notably the relationship between the Baltimore State's Attorney's Office and City Hall. In March, Jessamy endorsed Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan over O'Malley in the governor's race (Duncan later dropped out of the race, citing depression, and threw his support to O'Malley). And in that same month Jessamy had a dust-up with the City Council over her office's felony conviction rate, and just last week she argued publicly with City Council President Sheila Dixon over crime in the city.

According to former city police commissioner Ed Norris, these personality clashes have kept the program from ever really taking root. "I like the concept," he says. "I just never saw it really work, especially not in Baltimore where you have a mayor and a prosecutor who hate each other."

Even the mistakes in the press release regarding the Oct. 12 call-in suggest a lack of coordination and organization in the program's revival. According to Burns, the release went out late and was rushed "because there was some confusion about how the media would be involved and who was going to do [the press release]." In the effort to get it out on time, an administrator at the state's attorney's office copied the police station's address from an out-of-date police manual, hence the press release's incorrect assertion that the call-in would happen at the Keswick Road police station.

It remains to be seen whether the various agencies involved can make Operation Safe Neighborhoods work this time around or if it will continue, as Ferebee wrote in her November 2004 opinion piece, to miss "two essential ingredients . . . coordination and consistency over time."

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