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Baltimore’s leading mayoral candidates are embracing calls for change, but their proposals risk worsening mass incarceration and inequality.

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This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.

Jaisal Noor: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Jaisal Noor. Baltimore protesters took to the streets to demand justice for George Floyd, an African-American man killed at the hands of Minneapolis police and all victims of police brutality. The city’s June 2nd mayoral primary comes five years after the Baltimore uprising, sparked by the killing of 25 year-old Freddie Gray in police custody, which renewed calls for systemic change. But our next guest argues that while three leading mayoral candidates are promising to bring change, they also are “pledging to reduce shootings by empowering law enforcement to pursue tactics that have not been proven to save lives, but could drive up incarceration and perpetuate racial disparities.”

Now joining us to discuss this is J. Brian Charles, a reporter with The Trace, who wrote the piece With Voters Desperate to Reduce Shootings, Mayoral Candidates Vow to Crack Down on Guns, which was published in partnership with the Baltimore Beat. Thanks so much for joining us.

J. Brian Charle…: Thanks for having me.

Jaisal Noor: Can you talk about what you found on these national protests, which are taking place right here in Baltimore, are coinciding with this June 2nd primary, which is a presidential primary, which is also interesting, but also voters will get to pick the next mayor of Baltimore as the democratic primary pretty much decides the election. On one hand, people are protesting police brutality, but also murders and shootings are also rampant in Baltimore and it’s a major issue for voters.

J. Brian Charle…: Yeah. We decided to endeavor on this kind of piece as we saw that gun violence, specifically, was going to be a central theme in the election year. As you pointed out, we’ve had five consecutive years of 300 plus homicides in the city. We’ve been described, by some places, the deadliest of the toxic cities in the United States. It is really difficult live in Baltimore and not be acutely aware of just how much violence is pervasive within the city. It is one of those issues, and it is probably the leading issue, that bubbles up to the top of everybody’s campaign. You have mayoral candidates who their campaign slogans are things like “end the blood shed” and that sort of thing. So, we decided to dig into that and look at what are their proposals for reducing this violence.

Jaisal Noor: Talk about who you looked at. Sheila Dixon, who’s a former mayor who got taken down for corruption about a decade ago. Brandon Scott, who was a long time Councilman, who’s come around on a lot of issues. I did a piece recently about how he’s changed some of his views. These candidates also support holistic approaches, like you talk about in your piece, like Safe Streets, which employs violence interrupters, and also a Ceasefire, which tries to bring the city together around these shootings. Then TJ Smith, who’s a former spokesperson for the Baltimore Police Department, during a time of one its greatest corruption scandals.

Talk about what their plans are and how their plans match up with what has been proven to actually reduce violence.

J. Brian Charle…: We looked at pretty much all the leading candidates’ plans. We did, in somewhat of a piece, focus on three candidates with very deep ties to the city as a way to look at the way that the city itself sees how it should address gun violence. Like you said, and the piece indicates, is that all three of them… and then pretty much every candidate in this race… supports some of the anti-gun violence work that’s already being done through Ceasefire and through some of the Cure Violence intervention models.

But one thing that is hard to escape within the city is kind of the omnipresence of the police department here. One is a vehicle for trying to reduce violence. There’s scale [inaudible 00:04:13] when you have a large police department. Violence is very much a criminal justice issue. Kind of balancing that against some of the larger social issues that are contributing to it. We have an issue with housing. We have an issue with education. We have an issue with income equality and poverty. We have addiction that is rampant in the city. So, trying to balance those things is what all the candidates are doing. But what seems to be at the crux of everyone’s plans is really a push to try to stem the tide of guns coming into the city. That has become very much an important part of dealing with violence in Baltimore, is dealing with the flow of guns.

We calculated and a very high number of guns, most of them locally… when I say locally, Maryland, Virginia… to get flow into the city every year, that contribute to some high level of gun violence. For example, last year in 2019, the city captured 1800 fire arms during the year and still had 348 homicides at the same time, which leads one to believe that there’s a large number of firearms on the streets that aren’t being taken off the streets.

To some degree, all of them want to really beef up some of the efforts around removing guns off the street. One of the things that has been wildly supported is the gun offender. Those candidates, each one of them, has supported some version of that. The idea behind that is to make people who are caught with firearms register and check in with the police. One of the concerns around this is it has been challenged in court. It ultimately won, but the original challenge in court, the judge said that the registry itself and the requirements are unconstitutionally broad and vague. So, you would have to register with the police department. You’d have to be available for check ins at the police department. If you did something, as in like maybe forget to list your current address in between a move… which I think can happen, people forget to tell the post office they changed addresses… you could be in violation of the registry. That’s a thing that people are wanting to continue to have is that.

There’s been some efforts. Scott, for example, has added store purchases to that. Ms. Dixon is the one who put the registry in, in the first place, and she wants the continuation of the registry. The registry still is in effect to this day. That kind of dovetails nicely into some of the efforts to partner with federal agents on prosecution of gun crimes here. We have a couple of projects that are up and running at the federal government that prosecute gun offenders when they’re caught in commission of other crimes and then have an escalator for those kinds of offenses, as far as charging.

Those two things could potentially fuel some larger incarceration of African-Americans. When the registry, kind of at its peak, 96% of the people who were on the registry were African-Americans in city. There have been some folks who’ve said that that is a little bit biased in the way that it’s being applied, considering that this flow of guns are probably coming here from a lot of places and a lot of sources that aren’t [inaudible 00:07:53].

Jaisal Noor: This primary comes at an interesting time because the killing of George Floyd has sort of sparked these discussions about reforming police, what systemic reform looks like. We had that discussion in Baltimore over the past five years and Baltimore still spends more per capita on police than any other large city. According to some figures, $500 million a year on police. Yet, the city is still, as you said, considered one of the most dangerous and deadly cities in the country. As you’ve reported on, as The Trace has covered, there’s growing calls to change the priorities of cities like Baltimore and stop investing more in police and investing more in other services. Baltimore spends more on police than schools, education, and healthcare combined. Talk about why you think that’s not quite… the mayoral candidates, they haven’t quite caught up with that yet.

J. Brian Charle…: I think there’s two things that are at play at the same time. I think there is the… You’re right. There’s a lot more spending on police here than in other places and I think that there is a lot of calls to try some different tactics, especially to get at what people consider to be the root causes of that. That’s not something that I think Baltimore has been so far behind other cities in doing that I think that adapting that and implementing that has happened with some varying degrees of success.

There’s also been some places where people have questioned some of the programs that have been launched here around dealing with violence as a social and kind of a cultural plague, but that kind of rubs up against the political realities of being in office. The political realities are often we need to solve this issue as quickly as possible. Trying to expedite change sometimes undermines what would be other efforts to deal with this as a deeper issue.

Thinking about some of the work by David Kennedy that talks about this, violence is almost like a disease and you have to treat this disease. Well, I think that those efforts, you see them in places like Chicago and other cities. One of the big problems you have here is our trend line has continued to stay steady and steadily higher per capita than any other city over 500,000 in the country. I think what’s happened is, is that people have become really impatient with that level of change, this level of we need this now.

There’s also bit of a call from some folk folks in the race that say, “Well, it’s worth trying because what do we have to lose?” That gets into one other aspect of what people have called for, and you talked about this and we’ve talked about this, which is the area of surveillance for a project. People are just saying, “Hey, we need to try something.” So, I think one of the reasons why policing still is front and center, besides the fact what I said earlier about it’s a scalable answer in people’s minds, and it is the system that is in place. So, it’s not about rewriting or trying something all over again. It is also the fact that it’s too many people consider that the quickest and most expeditious way to get to a safer community. That rubs up really in deep conflict against the department that has been under consent decree. A lot of people make a lot about the consent decree that started.

Shortly after Catherine Pugh got in office, she entered an agreement with the federal government to put in a court monitor, but I think sometimes folks forget that those particular, that the city was under a court monitor as a result of an ACLU lawsuit from 2006, and I think for the next couple of years, around some of the same tactics. So, even with given that history, I think there’s this desire for quick change that keeps that in place and keeps that as a political reality. I think that’s why, oftentimes, the candidates here seem to be a little bit behind in some people’s estimations on what they should do to fix the violence issue in the city.

Jaisal Noor: You’ve talked about what actually has been proven to address these issues and I also want to bring up another quote in your piece. You’re write that research suggest, for instance, that many young black men who carry illegal firearms don’t do so to commit crimes, but because they don’t trust their government to keep them safe. That’s especially true in a city like Baltimore, which has recently had one of the biggest police corruption scandals in its history just unfold in the last couple of years. Can you talk about that?

J. Brian Charle…: Yeah. You’re referring to the Gun Trace Task Force. This is a unit that was actually… I mean, the irony is lost on nobody. This was a unit that was designed to remove guns from the streets and is an outgrowth of gun seizing policies that emerged during back in O’Malley, beginning of the Dixon administration. What they started to do, then, is to do exactly the opposite of what we would expect a group like this to do. There became the capture and the resale of weapons, the capture and resale of narcotics, and then staging robberies.

The one thing that is very true about Baltimore is that people from the top levels down to just the grassroots levels and just regular folks are very much aware of the issues that face the police department. Those trust issues extend from areas like that to the actions that were taken during the death of Freddie Gray, and even to the actions about hiding the aerial surveillance plane in 2016. I think that’s a part where they think, “Okay, maybe our police department doesn’t have my best interest in mind, as far as keeping me safe.” You layer on the number of homicides that are here that don’t get solved, with a 32% solve rate, I think was the last estimate that I saw. That’s the lowest among any major city in the United States and about roughly half the national average for solve rates for homicides. When they say solve, I mean having a suspect in custody. It doesn’t necessarily mean conviction.

Then, you add on the fact that where a lot of cities have their violence, it happens in a small area of the city, ours kind of happens… I’m here in Baltimore obviously… ours kind of happens across the city. So, I think there’s a feeling among a lot of folks, a lot of young men, that they’re not going to get there in time. They’re not going to be able to fix my issue. The person that is the person likely to pull the trigger in this city is very much likely to be able to do so and not actually be arrested for that. So, he or she or that person may still be out there.
If I want to go to such and such neighborhood at such and such time, I may just hold a weapon on me just to feel safe about that if I’m one of these young men out in the street. I think that is a big fueler for putting a lot of guns on the street and a lot of heightened tensions.

Jaisal Noor: Great. Well, appreciate your reporting. I believe that we’re expecting results on this race by the end of the week because of, obviously, the pandemic and mail-in voting, but it’s going to be interesting to see what happens in Baltimore going forward. Facing all these issues, people want change, but we’ll see how it unfolds. J. Brian Charles, thank you so much for joining us. He’s a reporter with The Trace, who wrote the piece With Voters Desperate to Reduce Shootings, Mayoral Candidates Vow to Crack Down on Guns, which was published in partnership with the Baltimore Beats. Thanks so much for joining us.

J. Brian Charle…: Thank you for having me.

Jaisal Noor: Thank you for joining us at The Real News Network.

Production: Genevieve Montinar, Bababtunde Ogunfolaju, Andrew Corkery
Studio: Bababtunde Ogunfolaju

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Jaisal is currently the Democracy Initiative Manager at the Solutions Journalism Network and is a former TRNN host, producer, and reporter. He mainly grew up in the Baltimore area and studied modern history at the University of Maryland, College Park. Before joining TRNN, he contributed print, radio, and TV reports to Free Speech Radio News, Democracy Now! and The Indypendent. Jaisal's mother has taught in the Baltimore City Public School system for the past 25 years. Follow him on Twitter @jaisalnoor.