Monday, February 22, 2010

Baltimore's Violent Crime: The Good News

originally published November 3, 2008

The reason for Baltimore’s drastically decreased homicide rate in two words: Rod Rosenstein.

If Rod J. Rosenstein isn’t a household name, it’s because we rarely hear it mentioned when the media talks about Baltimore’s eye-popping drop in murders. The latest Baltimore Sun article on the issue (October 14) gave “most of the credit” to Mayor Sheila Dixon and Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III. A Sun editorial three days later tried to spread the credit around, but the only names mentioned were Bealefeld and Dixon.

But make no mistake: the hub around which the wheel spins is Rosenstein, the U.S. Attorney for Maryland.

Not that he cares about the credit. He sits quietly at the monthly meetings of Baltimore’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council while others give reports and slap each other on the back. When two “federal” drug raids made Sun headlines in mid-September, Rosenstein took pains to praise the contributions of local prosecutors and police in a letter to the editor. And when asked directly whether his efforts are responsible for the decrease in homicides, he demurred. “I told my staff that I don’t know whether we are the reason, but just in case, keep it up,” he said.

It isn’t hard to figure out. All through this year I noticed the little blurbs on the inside page of the Sun’s Maryland section (before it disappeared.) A defendant federally convicted for drug-dealing. Another one sentenced for handgun possession. Quiet little items, even when Akiba Matthews, the cameraman in the infamous “stop snitching” video, pled guilty to federal drug and gun charges. He is now doing 30 years.

So I took a look at the press releases on the U.S. Attorney’s website, and wow. One Baltimore drug-dealing or gun-toting criminal after another put away for long stretches of time. Gang members convicted. Month after month, year after year.

At first glance it seems that the drop in homicides coincided with the ascent of Bealefeld to the position of police commissioner. But no one person can instantly reverse the homicide rate. Indeed, Bealefeld had been running the department as deputy police commissioner when homicides were climbing up. The statistics didn’t dive because Bealefeld got promoted to the top spot. They dove because several years of quiet, hard work are now paying off.

When Rosenstein took office in mid-2005 the U.S. Attorney’s Office was prosecuting some gun crimes under a program called DISARM. Assistant U.S. attorneys would simply review gun crime arrests made by city police officers for federal prosecution. There was no central coordination, lots of inefficiency and suspect recordkeeping.

Rosenstein changed that. He reorganized the office to include a violent crime section and a narcotics section. He created the Exile program and put Jason Weinstein, an energetic, enthusiastic federal prosecutor in charge. Weinstein’s in the middle of everything—deciding what city gun cases to prosecute federally, giving input into city meetings on gun crimes, and training local law enforcement officers. Perhaps most significantly, he works on strategies to address the city’s “Dirty Dozen.”

Officially called the Violent Repeat Offender (VRO) program, the Dirty Dozen (who actually number in the dozens) is the proactive side of Exile, where teams of law enforcement officers—federal and state—identify and target the city’s most violent criminals. They use creative strategies to take them down with whatever method works--wiretaps, state probation revocations or federal drug convictions for known murderers who have beaten the rap.

A case in point: Carlos Woods. According to court records, Woods, now 24, beat three attempted murder charges and one murder case in four separate incidents that occurred between January 2000 and July 2002. He got the usual treatment from city courts when caught dealing drugs: probation in 2002, followed by only one year for violating probation when he could have gotten five. In 2005, after three separate arrests for drug-dealing, Woods got a “package deal” of 17 years with 10 years suspended. Back on the street after doing less than three years of his sentence, Woods was spied dealing again in 2007.

This time a special city police team from the Violent Crime Impact Division (VCID), which is trained to federal standards, utilized video surveillance to make their case. And Rosenstein’s office prosecuted it, shocking Woods, who had deliberately carried a small amount of drugs to keep away from federal interest. He’s now serving nearly 22 years of federal time, and is one of 43 targets (out of 57) that have been taken off the street by the VRO program as of September, together with nearly 120 other co-defendants.

To be sure, Exile could not work without cooperation from everyone. Agents from several federal agencies put aside turf issues and work together. Bealefeld created the city VCID teams and moves them around the city to best address the violence. Dixon has created a climate in which State’s Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy feels she can work without a knife in her back. (In 2005 Jessamy had torpedoed a plan by her enemy Mayor Martin O’Malley to give the U. S. Attorney’s Office city money for more federal gun prosecutors. Jessamy accused O’Malley and Rosenstein of a racist conspiracy to “bypass and refuse to consult the elected prosecutor who is a black woman.” Rosenstein, who had just taken office and was new to the O’Malley-Jessamy feud, must have wondered what planet he had landed on.)

Two separate programs also play a role and deserve separate discussion at a later time: Gunstat, created by Dixon, and the Violence Prevention Initiative, established by Governor Martin O’Malley.

But the force behind the dramatic reductions in killings and shootings is without question the will of Rosenstein. By flexing his federal muscle he has deeply impacted the violence associated with drug-dealing.

And he’s not slowing down. In February of 2008 he announced that the number of violent offenders charged federally since 2005 had increased by 60% and that he now planned to focus on violent gangs and witness intimidation. As of September his office had taken out 166 gun-toting criminals in the first eight months of the year, on top of the targeted Dirty Dozen. And the Exile partners continue to improve their efficiency and teamwork.

Here’s the only credit Rosenstein would take: “What’s different is that we have implemented the program in a coordinated way and have maintained the energy so that the program is stronger than when we began.”

Stronger, effective, and oh-so-hopeful for Baltimore’s future. Rosenstein has proved that by focusing on the right criminals with a coordinated plan, law enforcement can stop some of the killing. And maybe, in 2009, it can stop even more.

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