Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison Wednesday sought to reassure business leaders that police are making inroads into reducing the violent crime that has wracked the city for the past five years.
During an appearance at a Greater Baltimore Committee-sponsored event, Harrison stressed that police are focused not only on reducing homicides that have exceeded more than 300 each of the past five years but on combating lower-profile crimes as well.
For instance, he noted, the department is seeking to reduce problems associated with “squeegee kids” who wipe the windows of cars stopped at traffic lights.
“It’s an issue that, like murder, has deep-rooted causes that drive young men to do that,” Harrison said. “In many cases, they’re caring for their own homes, sometimes as teenagers, and we’ve found they’re out there making two, three times what they could in jobs available to them.”
During Harrison’s presentation, which summarized the department’s five-year crime reduction plan, he said the department is close to implementing a new program to deter homicides, which he described as a “carrot-and-stick” method where police and other agencies use a variety of resources to steer people away from crime.
“It’s about bringing to bear all resources … to offer young men a pathway away from a life of violent crime,” Harrison said. “For those who choose poorly, there’s a side that says, ‘Here’s the entire government, we’re here to stop you.’”
After the meeting, several in attendance said they are confident in Harrison’s ability to reduce crime, but they also said business has been negatively affected by people being scared to walk around the city at night.
“Crime seems to be diminishing, but there’s also fear among tourists who come through town,” said Richard Duck, general manager of Phillips Seafood at the Inner Harbor. “In the evening after nine, our sales really drop off compared to where they were. We’ve been on the harbor since 1980, and we used to be able to drive up sales until 10, 11 at night.”
Duck added he thinks it’s possible tourists feel more compelled to stay in their hotels rather than walk around the city at night due to safety concerns. He said those issues increased noticeably following the city riots in 2015.
However, Duck said he appreciated Harrison’s comments about attacking crime at the root.
“I thought that was a really good point, we shouldn’t just be attacking crimes when they happen, but also dig in to figure out what’s really happening,” Duck said.
Scott Dorsey, chairman and CEO of Merritt Companies, said he believes Baltimore has “the right person in place” with Harrison and is encouraged by Harrison’s report that police officer retention has improved recently.
“If the retention rate is improving, that means morale is getting better, and some of the things he’s talking about are taking hold,” Dorsey said after the meeting. “I like his approach, and have confidence it will work.”
Since he took over, Harrison said, most crime rates other than homicides – which went up from 309 to 348 between 2018 and 2019 – have decreased, including robberies, burglaries, rapes, arson, car break-ins, and thefts.
At the moment, Harrison said, the department is short 350 officers.
In an attempt to fix that, the department restructured its officer training program so that it takes four months instead of a year for recruits to be trained, Harrison said.
Aside from changes to the department itself, Harrison said, a major part of the plan to reduce crime hinges on improving relationships between the community and the police. He said he appreciates the philanthropic assistance and expertise that local businesses have offered him.
“I need help figuring out how to change their thinking, so we run this 3,500 (employee) organization much like you run your excellent organizations,” Harrison said.