Last month, as Baltimore breached 300 homicides for the eighth year in a row, the city’s public safety leaders emphasized a bright spot in an otherwise dismal year: a dramatic drop in shootings in one of the most violent parts of town, reported the Baltimore Banner.
The 33 percent reduction in homicides and nonfatal shootings in the Western District follows Mayor Brandon Scott’s revival of a crime prevention approach known as the Group Violence Reduction Strategy (GVRS), an alternative way of policing the city’s most violent offenders. Citing the Western’s improvement, Scott has declared the city’s crime prevention experiment a success and unveiled plans to take it citywide.
But for many, that explanation for such a sudden drop in those crimes has seemed too good to be true. The Baltimore police union and members of the City Council have questioned whether the drop stemmed from population losses, a heavier policing presence in the district or misleading data.
How could the experiment be viewed as a success after yet another year that saw sustained levels of homicides and other nonfatal shootings? In a common refrain, critics questioned whether the strategy had really reduced crime, or merely shifted it from the Western District into other parts of the city. While some of their questions were easily dismissed by available data, others are more difficult to answer.
A Baltimore Banner analysis of 2022 homicides and nonfatal shootings found little evidence to support most critiques. Theories around the so-called “displacement” of crime from one neighborhood to the next, population loss and whether the reduction is significant only in comparison to a 2021 spike are not supported by the available data, the analysis found. Meanwhile, arguments around the distribution of police resources are harder to untangle.
For their part, Baltimore’s mayor and his allies have broadcast their own confidence in the results, and last month staked longer-term hopes in its effectiveness, laying out plans to aggressively scale up GVRS citywide within two years.
Though the Group Violence Reduction Strategy had been tried twice before its current iteration, the approach represents a complex re-envisioning of traditional law enforcement.
Essentially, the strategy focuses on the relatively small number — hundreds — of people responsible for the bulk of violent crime in the city. With this in mind, the approach connects those leading police investigations with groups providing social services to offer law enforcement targets an alternative path out of violence as opposed to incarceration.
Questions around police department resources and Baltimore’s relationship with a key partner loom over the expansion of the strategy, but the blueprint has found success in other places. Cities like Boston and New Orleans have seen steep drops in gang-related violence after adopting similar focused-deterrence models, while criminologists have credited the implementation of a group violence approach in Oakland in 2012 with precipitating consecutive years of shooting declines and the city’s lowest shooting level in almost half a century.
Even in a city with as stubborn a violent crime problem as Baltimore’s, a significant reduction in shootings was what experts studying gun violence expected to happen. University of Pennsylvania researchers tracking Baltimore’s pilot of the strategy say the Western District’s 33% drop in shootings is just a preview of its potential. If Baltimore can faithfully implement the strategy as it expands – a hurdle it has failed to clear in two previous attempts – residents should expect to see a similarly precipitous decline in shootings citywide, they have said.
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