ZON­ING IN ON THE PROB­LEM

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - By Luke Broad­wa­ter

Sgt. Wel­ton Simp­son Jr. drives his po­lice SUV through the Boyd-Booth neigh­bor­hood in South­west Bal­ti­more. The area has long been one of the most im­pov­er­ished and seg­re­gated parts of town. For years, of­fi­cials all but gave up on it.

But to­day, the streets look a lit­tle cleaner. Fewer weeds are threat­en­ing to take over. More lights are fixed.

Simp­son passes a cor­ner that was once a hub for drug deal­ing. It’s all clear.

“Our in­creased pa­trols seem to have re­duced the traf­fick­ing that was go­ing on,” he says.“For the most part, it’s work­ing.”

In Bal­ti­more’s most crime-rid­den zones, city of­fi­cials are con­duct­ing an ex­per­i­ment in gov­ern­ment. They started last year by tar­get­ing four small, deeply trou­bled areas to be flooded with more po­lice pa­trols and city ser­vices. They called them “Trans­for­ma­tion Zones,” at first, then re­branded them as “Vi­o­lence Re­duc­tion Zones.” They’ve since added three more zones,

bring­ing the to­tal to seven.

Each zone gets sev­eral ded­i­cated po­lice of­fi­cers, called Neigh­bor­hood Co­or­di­na­tion Of­fi­cers, and an ex­tra fo­cus across city gov­ern­ment for ramped-up ser­vices. Mayor Cather­ine Pugh has put $1.6 mil­lion in the city’s bud­get for two “rapid re­sponse” crews from the Depart­ment of Public Works to quickly clean up these areas, three more hous­ing in­spec­tors to en­force code vi­o­la­tions such as peel­ing lead paint, and ex­tended hours at lo­cal re­cre­ation cen­ters.

The idea is sim­ple: If it can be rightly said that these areas were for far too long over-po­liced and un­der-served — and if this puni­tive style of gov­ern­ment did not pro­duce last­ing crime de­clines — then of­fi­cials should try the op­po­site: The zones should be drown­ing in ser­vices, from job train­ing to street clean­ing.

And if the ap­proach can im­prove the most ne­glected parts of Bal­ti­more, the the­ory goes, of­fi­cials should be able to cre­ate a domino ef­fect that will spread the trans­for­ma­tion out­ward to neigh­bor­ing areas, and even­tu­ally the city as a whole.

“If you can drive crime down in the most vi­o­lent areas,” Pugh says, “you can drive down crime all over the city.”

But there’s a con­cern. As po­lice and politi­cians in­crease pa­trols and of­fer more nee­dle ex­changes and rec cen­ter pro­grams, they ac­knowl­edge, some of the crime they’re sup­press­ing is sim­ply mov­ing to other parts of the city.

Simp­son — a com­bat vet­eran who served in Iraq — looks out at the cor­ner of Hollins and Payson streets.

“They wanted us to deal with the open-air drug mar­kets. We jumped in feet first and started deal­ing with that,” he says. “The drug op­er­a­tion that was op­er­at­ing there, they’re com­pletely shut down. They’ve moved to an­other part of the city.

“I know where they’re at. I let peo­ple know this is where they are now, but they’re not at Hollins and Payson. We pushed them out.”

In­side the seven zones, homi­cides are down by about 30 per­cent from the same pe­riod last year. And data col­lected by the city’s re­vamped Ci­tiS­tat of­fice — now called the Of­fice of Sus­tain­able So­lu­tions — show ser­vices in the seven zones have in­creased, in some cases dra­mat­i­cally.

It used to take nearly three weeks to get a cleanup crew to a site af­ter a dump­ing in Bal­ti­more’s poor­est neigh­bor­hoods. Now it takes about two days. The time it took to re­move aban­doned ve­hi­cles and fix bro­ken street lights in these zones has been cut in half.

City of­fi­cials say they’ve per­formed nearly 10,000 vis­its to check on the fire safety of homes in these areas, con­tacted nearly 4,000 res­i­dents about jobs, and con­ducted nearly 3,000 nee­dle ex­changes since the end of last year.

Pugh de­scribes the strat­egy as a “hyper fo­cus” on the most his­tor­i­cally ne­glected parts of Bal­ti­more. She says gov­ern­ment is bring­ing the “same type of ur­gency” to en­trenched prob­lems as it typ­i­cally re­serves for nat­u­ral dis­as­ters.

Vi­o­lence has be­gun to de­cline across Bal­ti­more, but less dra­mat­i­cally than in the zones. Homi­cides city­wide are down 16 per­cent and vi­o­lent crime has de­clined 19 per­cent this year, a wel­come im­prove­ment af­ter three years in which mur­ders topped 300 an­nu­ally.

Pugh cred­its the Vi­o­lence Re­duc­tion Zones, new Po­lice Com­mis­sioner Darryl De Sousa’s “blitz” strat­egy and com­mu­nity-led anti-vi­o­lence ef­forts such as the Cease­fire move­ment.

“We be­lieve all of that work­ing to­gether cer­tainly did have a con­tri­bu­tion,” Pugh says. “The is­sue is mak­ing sure it doesn’t spill over into other areas. … What we don’t want is for it to spill over into other areas.”

The city launched the first zones in early 2017 un­der former Po­lice Com­mis­sioner Kevin Davis. But Pugh says they didn’t re­ceive the sup­port they needed to be suc­cess­ful un­til Novem­ber, when she or­dered the lead­ers of 30 city agen­cies to be­gin meet­ing at po­lice head­quar­ters ev­ery morn­ing to strate­gize ways to drive down crime in the zones. That’s when the Trans­for­ma­tion Zones be­came Vi­o­lence Re­duc­tion Zones.

“There are is­sues that the Po­lice Depart­ment faces when you’re try­ing to deal with vi­o­lence,” the mayor says. “You might be try­ing to get to an al­ley. The al­ley is filled with trash. You know where drugs are be­ing dis­trib­uted. You know where the trou­bled busi­nesses are. You’re com­ing up on streets that are very dark.”

On a re­cent Fri­day, crews from the de­part­ments of public works and hous­ing swarmed the 1500 block of Trac­tion St. in West Bal­ti­more, a part of town that looked more like a land­fill than a neigh­bor­hood. The work­ers boarded up va­cant build­ings, painted over graf­fiti and hauled away huge piles of trash that had built up for months — leav­ing the block in no­tice­ably bet­ter shape for its home­own­ers, and in less than an hour.

John Chalmers, the West Bal­ti­more man who heads the city’s Bureau of Solid Waste, says crews have closed out more than 12,000 ser­vice re­quests since Novem­ber, knock­ing down the av­er­age wait time from weeks to un­der two days. By send­ing out mul­ti­ple crews at the same time, he says, they can have a big­ger ef­fect trans­form­ing a neigh­bor­hood.

“It helps to re­ju­ve­nate the res­i­dents,” he says. “When they see this amount of re­sources in a high-crime area like this, it helps to bring them back. They left this morn­ing, they come back this af­ter­noon and they see all the de­bris gone. That’s how you get the cit­i­zens to buy back in.”

Lawrence Brown, an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor at Mor­gan State Uni­ver­sity who stud­ies how racism af­fects public health, says he won­ders about the mo­ti­va­tion be­hind the In seven small zones in Bal­ti­more, po­lice say they have achieved a re­duc­tion in shoot­ings and homi­cides that they hope will spill over to the rest of the city. Since cre­at­ing the Vi­o­lence Re­duc­tion Zones in Novem­ber, Bal­ti­more of­fi­cials say their “rapid re­sponse” teams have sig­nif­i­cantly cut down on the time it takes for city work­ers to re­spond to re­quests for ser­vice in Bal­ti­more’s poor­est neigh­bor­hoods. zones: Is the ap­proach to help res­i­dents, or de­vel­op­ers plan­ning projects?

Brown notes that the ef­fort is rel­a­tively small. Pugh’s bud­get this year, for in­stance, con­tained more than $500 mil­lion for polic­ing, and fund­ing for law en­force­ment in­creased more than any other as­pect of gov­ern­ment.

“Things that may ben­e­fit a com­mu­nity ini­tially may end up ben­e­fit­ing de­vel­op­ers more in the long run,” Brown says. “This small ef­fort is tak­ing place with­out a larger strat­egy to ad­dress sys­temic op­pres­sion in black areas. If it was backed up with more sys­temic ways of un­do­ing op­pres­sion, I would feel more com­fort­able. I’m leery of a piece­meal ap­proach, know­ing de­vel­op­ers are eye­ing these areas.”

But Nancy McCormick, pres­i­dent of the Mount Clare Com­mu­nity Coun­cil, says she’s seen im­prove­ments in her neigh­bor­hood since the ef­fort be­gan.

McCormick, 77, says she watched for decades as Mount Clare de­te­ri­o­rated in slow mo­tion.

“When I moved to Bal­ti­more in 1966, I re­marked how beau­ti­ful this city was at the time,” she says. “It was spot­less. You wouldn't see a piece of trash on the ground. Now they throw trash on the mon­u­ment. It’s a dis­grace . ...

“We have a lot of drug ac­tiv­i­ties and pros­ti­tu­tion.”

But she says the new strat­egy has given her some hope. She’s no­ticed im­proved ser­vices com­ing from City Hall. Af­ter years of com­plaints about trash pil­ing up in al­leys in the neigh­bor­hood, a city crew re­cently came and hauled away all the garbage in the 400 block of S. Gil­mor St.

“They were go­ing with garbage cans down the al­ley and ac­tu­ally clean­ing the whole al­ley,” she says. “I told my hus­band I was about to faint. That was a first for the neigh­bor­hood. … They were out around Cole Street. They were clean­ing al­leys over there. They’ve been do­ing a lot of clean­ing, which is sur­pris­ing.”

Po­lice, mean­while, have “got­ten a lot of guns and drugs out off the neigh­bor­hood,” she says. “The ac­tiv­ity has re­ally gone down.”

Edith Gil­liard-Canty, 69, pres­i­dent of the Franklin Square Com­mu­nity As­so­ci­a­tion, has also no­ticed im­prove­ments. But she says the crim­i­nal ac­tiv­ity has just been just out­side the neigh­bor­hood.

“As for our neigh­bor­hood and what I see, I don’t see a whole lot hap­pen­ing in our com­mu­nity like in other com­mu­ni­ties,” she says. “Ev­ery­thing is hap­pen­ing around our bound­aries.”

Gil­liard-Canty says the neigh­bor­hood has suf­fered drug deal­ing and shoot­ings for years. While she’s ap­pre­cia­tive of the city’s ef­forts to en­cour­age drug deal­ers to leave the pro­fes­sion for le­gal work, she be­lieves few will take the of­fer. Most, she be­lieves, will just move to other parts of Bal­ti­more.

“Yes, they are of­fer­ing a lot of ser­vices. You can’t blame the city for try­ing,” she says. “But they can go out­side and throw 1,000 fly­ers on top of the guys stand­ing the cor­ner and it won’t do a thing. These are the ser­vices the city is of­fer­ing, but maybe only one of them are pick­ing up on them.

“We can’t blame the city for what peo­ple won’t do.”

A team from the Bloomberg Har­vard City Lead­er­ship Ini­tia­tive vis­ited Bal­ti­more in Jan­uary to be­gin study­ing the ef­fort. More ro­bust re­search is set to be­gin later this year. A spokesman for Har­vard said the study will be made avail­able once it’s com­pleted.

City Coun­cil Pres­i­dent Bernard C. “Jack” Young says he hears fewer com­plaints from within the zones.

“Where I used to get calls about crime and drug deal­ing on the cor­ners, I don’t get those calls as much any­more,” Young says. “When I go to com­mu­nity meet­ings, I don’t hear that. We still have too much crime. But I think this co­or­di­nated ef­fort is work­ing.”

De Sousa, who re­placed Davis in Jan­uary, says ini­tial suc­cess in the first four zones led of­fi­cials to ex­pand to seven: two in West Bal­ti­more, two in East Bal­ti­more and one each in Park Heights, the South­west Tri-Dis­trict and North­east Bal­ti­more.

While most of these spots have long been hot­beds in crime — and vir­tu­ally ig­nored for city in­vest­ment — the North­east Zone is an area where crime had re­cently started to creep up.

De Sousa says city of­fi­cials de­cided to tar­get that zone af­ter a crime spike.

“We took all the mem­bers of the Vi­o­lence Re­duc­tion Ini­tia­tive to Be­lair Road,” De Sousa says. “The day be­fore there was a young man who had been mur­dered. He died ly­ing in trash. We knew there was a need to add a zone in the North­east.”

De Sousa hopes the city adds more zones in fu­ture months. But he’s mind­ful of the po­ten­tial of push­ing crime into other parts of Bal­ti­more.

He says he knows of only a “hand­ful” of clear cases of what city of­fi­cials call “dis­place­ment” — in­stances in which some­one com­mit­ting crimes in a zone was pushed out and be­gan com­mit­ting them out­side the zone.

“We are not ne­glect­ing other parts of the city,” he says. “We specif­i­cally talk about dis­place­ment. That is a con­cern. Po­lice com­man­ders have a con­ver­sa­tion about what's hap­pen­ing out­side the zone, what kind of ar­rests are made out­side of the zone. It’s a tough chal­lenge.”

But af­ter decades of a po­lice-heavy fo­cus on Bal­ti­more’s poor­est ZIP codes, he says, a new ap­proach is worth a try.

“When there is a con­ver­sa­tion about over-polic­ing cer­tain com­mu­ni­ties and un­der-serv­ing them, I think we’re flip­ping that,” he says.

City Coun­cil­man Bran­don Scott, chair­man of the coun­cil’s public safety com­mit­tee, be­gan rais­ing the is­sue of dis­place­ment last year. He noted that many more mur­ders were oc­cur­ring out­side of the zones than in­side.

Dur­ing a coun­cil hear­ing last sum­mer, Scott point­edly ques­tioned po­lice com­man­ders over why more than 90 per­cent of mur­ders were oc­cur­ring out­side the zones.

“We know their zones are be­ing suc­cess­ful be­cause there’s less vi­o­lence there, but clearly it’s go­ing to some­place else,” he says. “We can see there's dis­place­ment. They can’t just cel­e­brate these zones while ev­ery­thing is go­ing crazy every­where else. Smart crim­i­nals are go­ing to re­lo­cate.”

Scott says he be­lieves the ser­vice-heavy strat­egy works best when the politi­cians get out of the way and let agency work­ers on the ground co­or­di­nate re­sponses to prob­lems quickly. He notes the City Coun­cil called for a co­or­di­nated strat­egy to fight crime last Fe­bru­ary and had to wait nearly a year for the ad­min­is­tra­tion to im­ple­ment it.

“The en­tire city should op­er­ate like that,” he says.

At a re­cent 8 a.m. meet­ing led by Pugh at po­lice head­quar­ters, top city of­fi­cials ticked off a list of ac­com­plish­ments in the zones, such as how long each zone had gone with­out crim­i­nal­ity ac­tiv­ity. They also dis­cussed en­hanc­ing light­ing and tar­get­ing prob­lem busi­nesses, for more gains.

A re­port from an East Bal­ti­more zone said there had been no vi­o­lence within the last 48 hours and po­lice had dis­rupted a drug op­er­a­tion. City work­ers said they were close to fig­ur­ing out who was dump­ing trash at Old Town Mall.

A sim­i­lar re­port from the North­west Zone said there had been “no acts of vi­o­lence in the VRI.” The re­port from a West Bal­ti­more zone was straight­for­ward: “No shoot­ings in the VRI in the past 24 hours.”

Pugh urged po­lice to look for drug deal­ing in­side West Bal­ti­more liquor stores. She had vis­ited one, she said, and be­lieved deal­ers had moved in­side with the tacit ap­proval of the busi­ness own­ers.

“You don’t see them on the cor­ners much any more,” the mayor said. “There was a man in a wheel­chair with money on his lap. I don’t think he was buy­ing any­thing.”

A liquor board in­spec­tor told her they would plan covert op­er­a­tions in the area.

Simp­son was joined on pa­trol in the South­west Tri-Dis­trict zone by De­tec­tive Ryan Perry and Of­fi­cer Joy Pegeus to form a three-mem­ber team that per­forms ex­tra polic­ing in the area. Their job is to drive down crime, but also serve as am­bas­sadors from the city to the neigh­bor­hood.

Simp­son says the of­fi­cers act as the eyes and ears of city gov­ern­ment, call­ing in street light out­ages, blocks in which there’s a need to cre­ate open space, and traf­fic pat­terns that should be al­tered.

Perry teaches an anti-drug DARE class in one of the schools in the zone. Pegeus says she has a pas­sion for work­ing with young women to get them out of a life of pros­ti­tu­tion and drugs.

The of­fi­cers “are do­ing ev­ery­thing you can think of across the board,” Simp­son says. “We al­ready know we can’t ar­rest our way out of this prob­lem, so we had to come up with new cre­ative ways to deal with the is­sue.”

Simp­son says he used to at­tend meet­ings about bring­ing ser­vices to the zones. But he re­al­ized it was eas­ier to co­or­di­nate di­rectly with work­ers on the ground from four agen­cies: the Fire Depart­ment, public works, trans­porta­tion and health.

The of­fi­cers talk about the vi­o­lent crime spike that fol­lowed the death in April 2015 of Fred­die Gray from in­juries suf­fered in po­lice cus­tody, the ri­ot­ing and charges against six of­fi­cers. They’re hope­ful their new ap­proach can turn things around.

“Maybe morale isn’t where it should be,” Simp­son says. “Maybe of­fi­cers aren’t as proac­tive as they should be be­cause they feel they don’t have the sup­port of the public. Right af­ter the ri­ots, peo­ple who were in­volved in crim­i­nal ac­tiv­ity be­lieved they could do what ever they wanted to do.”

Forty of the stu­dents at Steuart Hill Academy, the school where Perry teaches DARE, are home­less. The of­fi­cers re­serve food bas­kets for them at Thanks­giv­ing.

“I be­lieve the po­lice have to work to earn the peo­ple’s trust,” Simp­son says. “I be­lieve it starts with those kids. When Perry saw the op­por­tu­nity to teach DARE, I brought that to the ma­jor. We’re in that school. Now they know us. They like us.”

On their pa­trols, the of­fi­cers pass some of the most di­lap­i­dated blocks in Bal­ti­more, places aban­doned so long ago that trees now grow out of the build­ings.

The of­fi­cers stop at a car re­pair shop, where neigh­bors have com­plained about il­le­gal park­ing, to make sure there are no vi­o­la­tions, be­fore head­ing to­ward a group of va­cant rowhomes.

Simp­son says the of­fi­cers of­ten find drug-ad­dicted peo­ple hang­ing out in the va­cant homes. They usu­ally need some form of help.

In a pre­vi­ous era, po­lice might have locked them up for drug pos­ses­sion, or tres­pass­ing. But the of­fi­cers now try a dif­fer­ent ap­proach.

“When we see peo­ple in the va­cants, we try to of­fer them any ser­vices we can,” Simp­son says. “It forces of­fi­cers to do some­thing dif­fer­ent than just ar­rest peo­ple, when they may just be try­ing to get warm.”

Gain­ing trust is a key part of the pro­gram, says Sgt. Wel­ton Simp­son Jr.

LLOYD FOX/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

Of­fi­cer Lak­isha Feaster lends a hand paint­ing over graf­fiti in the 1500 block of Trac­tion St. In Vi­o­lence Re­duc­tion Zones, po­lice of­fi­cers serve as city am­bas­sadors.

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