Baltimore’s new anti-violence strategy targets drug gangs

Mar 28, 2023, 10:10 AM

BALTIMORE (AP) — Baltimore leaders announced criminal indictments Tuesday against 33 people accused of operating a violent drug trafficking organization, saying the prosecution illustrates the continued success of an anti-violence program launched last year in one of America’s most violent cities.

Baltimore’s Group Violence Reduction Strategy uses an individualized “focused deterrence” approach to target potential shooters and victims, offering them services and support where possible, in lieu of law enforcement action. But officials said some people, like the 33 defendants facing indictment, are a serious risk to public safety.

Nineteen of those indicted have already been arrested, according to a news release from the state attorney general’s office. The others were still being sought Tuesday.

They said the arrests should serve as a warning to other people contributing to Baltimore’s high homicide rate.

“Don’t let this be you,” Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott said at a news conference Tuesday announcing the indictments. “We want you to change your life. We want you to stay alive. We don’t want you to go to jail. But if you choose to do this, that’s what’s going to happen to you.”

Scott, who has made gun violence a key priority of his administration after years of surging homicides, touted promising results from a pilot program of the anti-violence strategy that was implemented last year in the police department’s Western District. The district experienced a 38% reduction in shootings and homicides in 2022. The program has since expanded into the neighboring Southwest District with plans to expand further in the coming months.

“This strategy works and it works for a reason,” Scott said.

Other cities have seen success with similar programs, though experts warn the effects are sometimes short-lived. Baltimore has tried twice before to implement a focused deterrence program, but past efforts never made it fully off the ground.

Homicides citywide have been trending downward in recent months, resulting in a roughly 25% reduction compared to this time last year, according to police department data.

Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison said the department is committed to dismantling open-air drug markets in hopes of addressing both gun violence and overdose deaths.

“As our city and state continue to grapple with overdose deaths and addiction, we must dismantle these organizations that destroy our neighborhoods and damage our quality of life through drug distribution,” he said.

Maryland Attorney General Anthony Brown, whose office will prosecute the 33 defendants, said investigators used undercover drug purchases, video surveillance and wiretaps to build their case. He said they seized a large quantity of fentanyl and cocaine. The investigation stemmed from a 2022 nonfatal shooting involving two of the defendants, Brown said.

Tuesday’s announcement marked the second such large-scale law enforcement action under the anti-violence strategy. Officials announced a series of gun and drug arrests in August after the program received criticism from some Baltimore City Council members complaining about its slow rollout amid surging violence.

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