After Baltimore shooting, Moore calls for more police, tougher sentences

A week after 30 people were shot — two fatally — in a historic attack in Baltimore, Gov. Wes Moore said that stemming the bloodshed will require more police and tougher sentencing for repeat violent offenders — echoing a tonal shift for Democratic leaders grappling with escalating gun violence.

“You cannot violate the safety of our community and think there will be little or no accountability for it,” Moore said during an interview in which he detailed what he calls an “all of the above” strategy. “These people who are repeat violent offenders, I want them to know we’re coming for them.”

The rhetoric — in some of his most extensive comments on public safety as governor — signals a tougher-on-crime stance than Moore has projected since he swept into office six months ago, in part on pledges to tackle intractable problems that include racial disparities in the state’s criminal justice system. Three years after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis focused national attention on policing, racial disparities and systemic inequities, the political landscape has shifted amid public alarm over crime.

Earlier this year, to the chagrin of liberals and civil rights leaders, President Biden signed a GOP-led resolution that blocked D.C.’s overhaul of its criminal code, which called for eliminating most mandatory minimum sentences and reduced maximum penalties for robbery and burglary — but also provided additional tools to prosecutors and judges to enhance penalties. This week, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) has been trying to build support for emergency legislation to create a new penalty for firing a gun in public and making it easier to detain people awaiting trial, a proposal some council members say could fuel mass incarceration.

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In Baltimore last year, outspoken liberal State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby was defeated by Ivan J. Bates, a tough-on-crime Democrat who said Mosby’s signature policy of not prosecuting low-level crimes had created disorder in the city. “In the ’90s, we went too far — everybody was [pushing] mass incarceration,” Bates said in an interview with The Washington Post this year. “What we’ve seen here lately is people have gone too far the other way, where we are really afraid to hold people accountable because we are afraid of mass incarceration.”

Confronted with choices aimed at protecting people from gun violence and at reforming systems that could help keep people from resorting to it, Moore said he sees no conflict.

He called it a “false choice” to think that tougher sentencing and additional resources for law enforcement could not be instituted while also addressing the racial disparities in the criminal justice system and the systemic problems in education, housing and the economy that contribute to crime, where Black people make up 71 percent of the state’s prison population but less than a third of the state’s overall population.

Moore did not say if anyone involved in last week’s mass shooting is a repeat violent offender (so far, one teenager has been arrested on weapon charges); offer any specifics on which crimes he wants to see receive tougher sentences; or say whether he would resurrect legislation that would impose harsher penalties on repeat violent offenders, something that was repeatedly pushed by his predecessor as governor, Republican Larry Hogan. Instead, Moore said, he plans to work with the state legislature to ensure that repeat violent offenders know that their “days are done.”

Since the shooting July 2, GOP lawmakers have urged Moore to call a special session of the legislature to consider bills to impose tougher penalties. He said Monday that it was unnecessary to call lawmakers back to Annapolis. “We don’t have to wait for a session” to deal with public safety, he said.

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Last week, bleary-eyed and solemn, Moore arrived at Brooklyn Homes, the federal housing complex and site of the shooting, and stood before a small crowd that included Anthony Wicks, 39, a survivor whose gray T-shirt masked a fresh wound.

Moore had just spent four hours visiting shooting victims and their families at the University of Maryland’s Shock Trauma Center and about 30 minutes watching surveillance video with police and other elected officials of teenagers fleeing and falling to the ground.

Speaking to the residents, he pledged justice and peace for the community and for the victims — half of whom were teenagers. “And we’re not stopping until we get it,” he said.

“We want the community to know that, collectively, we stand together as state leadership, local leadership, federal leadership,” Moore added. “And we’re here to say that this is not just the response to an incident. This is about how we are actually improving the quality of life for everybody for good. … We just cannot continue going from tragedy to tragedy.”

The moment could be defining for Moore, who has cast himself as a transformational leader who has identified ending child poverty as the hallmark of a closely watched administration. Although he has never before held elective office, Moore vaulted into politics with star power and holds a national profile as the lone Black governor of a U.S. state.

Only recently has Moore begun rolling out his plans to blunt crime in Maryland, where reported incidents of violence dropped substantially between 2010 and 2020, according to state data. Baltimore, the state’s largest city, with a population of 570,000, has long had one of the nation’s highest per capita murder rates. The city, which is also Moore’s adoptive hometown, has had more than 300 killings each year since 2015 when unrest ensued after local resident Freddie Gray died of injuries he suffered in police custody.

Baltimore’s mayor said homicides are down 20 percent in the city this year. In Brooklyn Homes, Baltimore police data shows that in 2022, at least 27 people were injured in shootings — up from an average of 20 between 2017 and 2021.

After last week’s shooting, pundits say, how Moore tackles crime will undoubtedly play a role in shaping his first term. The governor also is the author of the 2010 bestseller “The Other Wes Moore,” a personal story of how educational opportunities and economic inequities affect whether a person falters or succeeds.

“It is going to be an issue,” said Mileah Kromer, an associate professor of political science at Goucher College and the director of the college’s Sarah T. Hughes Center for Politics. “With Baltimore being such a focus of who he is and his campaign, I think that people will be looking to the governor for leadership on this issue, or at least partnership with local officials.”

California-based Democratic strategist Dan Newman said Moore’s response to the shooting and its aftermath is crucial as he continues to define himself to Marylanders.

“This is a capital ‘M’ moment, and moments matter because it means people are paying attention. … Nothing is more viscerally important to voters than safety,” he said. “In these moments, leaders need to show the right mix of empathy, outrage and compassion, while giving people confidence that they know how to make things better.”

Kromer predicted that Moore will continue to emphasize the relationship between poverty and crime as he seeks to advance a holistic approach to criminal justice.

Moore drew the connection last month, flanked by two dozen members of his cabinet, including Vincent N. Schiraldi, the secretary of the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services, who before his appointment was a national leader in mass incarceration reform. “When people have better access to jobs, education and opportunity, they’re more likely to contribute to our society instead of resorting to crime as a way to survive. We need to make the kind of foundational investments that will break down that pipeline from poverty to prison,” Moore said.

Days later, in a speech to the National Press Club, Moore addressed what he called a false narrative around crime, saying the issue has been weaponized by politicians. Even though violent crime has dropped across the country since the 1990s, he said, the fear of violence is rampant. It has been fed as a false narrative, he said, from “some politicians who say every urban area is a city in crisis … some in the media who say violence is everywhere at all times … and the false narrative of some in the public who have come to believe that violence is an inescapable part of American life.”

For Bridgette McPhaul, 54, a grandmother who works at the local school in the Brooklyn Homes area, the fear is real. She lives in the neighborhood and attended the annual community block party but left before the celebration turned deadly.

“Why y’all trying to help the community now and make it like a nice place after the mass shooting? Why haven’t you already been doing that?” a 14-year-old asked the elected officials as the news conference wound down.

“I would say we have been doing that,” Baltimore Mayor Brandon D. Scott (D) responded, noting that a $20 million school has been built and that a recreation center is on the drawing board.

The event ended without Moore’s responding to the teenager’s question.

On Monday, Moore said he shared the teenager’s sentiments, saying this sense of urgency was a driving force in his decision to run for governor. Brooklyn Homes has three times the unemployment rate of the state, Moore said, half of the children live in poverty, and a quarter of them do not have internet access.

“We cannot just pay attention to communities and neighborhoods only when there is a challenge,” he said. “I came up in a neighborhood where it was neglected, and we knew it was neglected. … There has to be a new way of approach.”

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