Baltimore Businesses Request Police Crackdown on Low-Level Crimes

After a shooting last weekend, the heads of 37 businesses asked city leaders to "empower police" to enforce traffic and drug laws.

BALTIMORE, UNITED STATES - 2020/05/30: A Baltimore police officer gazes at protesters during a Black Lives Matter demonstration.Protesters in Baltimore standoff against police following the death of George Floyd under police custody. (Photo by J.M. Giordano/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
A Baltimore police officer is seen during a demonstration in Baltimore, Md., on May 30, 2020. Photo: J.M. Giordano/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Gett

In Baltimore’s Fells Point neighborhood, a group of 37 restaurant and business leaders are threatening to withhold taxes and other fees until city officials enforce traffic and parking laws, stop “illegal open-air alcohol and drug sales,” and “empower police to responsibly do their job.”

The businesses sent their complaints in a June 8 letter addressed to Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott, City Council President Nick Mosby, Councilmember Zeke Cohen, State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, and Police Commissioner Michael Harrison. The letter comes as cities across the country are seeing a spike in homicides and gun violence, while other types of violent crimes have largely decreased. Three people were shot in Fells Point last weekend.

“What is happening in our front yard — the chaos and lawlessness that escalated this weekend into another night of tragic, unspeakable gun violence — has been going on for far too long,” the business leaders write. They go on to demand the restoration of “basic and essential municipal services,” including picking up trash, enforcing traffic and parking laws through ticketing and towing, stopping open-air sale of alcohol and drugs, and empowering police to fight “a culture of lawlessness.”

But Mosby, the state’s attorney, told The Intercept that the solutions outlined in the letter would do little to curb the recent uptick in violence, and that her office has been focused on prosecuting homicides and nonfatal shootings. “In a city like Baltimore, where our nonfatal shootings and our homicides are up, our resources should be reallocated to ensure that we’re going after violent offenses,” Mosby said. She added that Baltimore only solves one out of four homicides a year, and the city stacked up a huge backlog of cases throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. The Baltimore Police Department reported a higher homicide clearance rate last year at 32 percent.

In office since 2015, Mosby gained national fame for charging the six police officers who took part in the arrest that killed Freddie Gray. Last year, amid the pandemic, her office met with public health experts to try to minimize exposure to the virus in local jails and among law enforcement officers. As a result of those conversations, Mosby stopped prosecuting low-level offenses experts have found do not have a significant positive overall impact on public safety: drug possession, paraphernalia, sex work, trespassing, minor traffic offenses, open-container alcohol, and urinating and defecating in public. Her office dismissed more than 1,400 cases for such offenses, eliminated warrants for individuals who had been charged with them, and pushed Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan to reduce the prison and jail population.

Mosby is one of several reform-minded prosecutors across the country facing backlash for their decarceral approach to criminal justice and being blamed for spikes in gun violence and other crimes in major cities from Philadelphia to San Francisco. The response is nothing new, she said, but it “is undermining.” One of the shootings to which the business leaders objected took place “feet away from police officers, and yet here’s this misconception that somehow these policies are to blame because we’re not prosecuting open-container? It’s illogical. Because we’re still prosecuting assault, we’re still prosecuting attempted murder, we’re still prosecuting malicious destruction of property.”

Hogan, a Republican, has fought Mosby at nearly every turn; in 2019, he called on the state attorney general to pursue cases her office declines to prosecute and announced that he would use state funds to carry out the effort. In 2020, however, Hogan issued two executive orders that resulted in the release of close to 2,000 people, after Mosby’s repeated urging. Mosby’s office also opened a sentencing review unit in December to review and reduce excess sentences for juvenile lifers and elderly people behind bars.

Mosby’s office monitored the impact of their policies over the last year and found that between February 2020 and 2021, Baltimore’s overall incarceration rate went down 18 percent, with an 80 percent reduction in drug arrests in 2020. Between March 2020 and 2021, Baltimore saw a 20 percent reduction in violent crime, excluding nonfatal shootings and homicides, and a 36 percent reduction in property crimes, which Mosby attributes not directly to her policies but to greater stability and leadership of the Baltimore Police Department. Unlike in cities like Philadelphia, where the police have fought District Attorney Larry Krasner at every turn, Mosby’s office claims to have a good relationship with BPD.

Mosby said her office fundraises for young people to help curb gun violence during the summer, and not one of the business owners who signed the letter has contributed. She added that her office has held nine town halls to explain her policies, but none of the businesses participated.

Lance Sovine, a letter signatory who owns the Fells Point gift shop E.C. Pops, claimed that city officials lost all control of the neighborhood during the pandemic. “They have to realize that we’ve made an investment to be there. We’ve continued to pay our rent at a huge loss to ourselves, but we believe in Fells Point,” Sovine told The Intercept. He added that he had nothing against the elected officials, but wanted them to come hold a press conference at “2 a.m. this Saturday night” in Fells Point to see what business owners are facing. “It’s called ‘eat what you cook,’” Sovine said. “You know what? They won’t do it. That needs to be a direct quote.”

Asked about the focus by the state’s attorney’s office on prosecuting violent crime, and evidence that cracking down on low-level offenses can lead to death for Black people, Sovine said he understood the concern. “I’m frustrated with that as well,” he said, adding that he’s also frustrated by people driving dirt bikes up and down sidewalks, vendors selling alcohol on the street to minors, and DJs playing loud music in the square.

“I’m with it. I understand. What happens, sometimes it’s ridiculous,” Sovine said, referring to the police killing of 20-year-old Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, in April. Shortly before he was killed, Wright told his mother over the phone that police had pulled him over for having an air freshener hanging from his rearview mirror. Police later said they pulled Wright over for driving with expired tags.

“We’re not trying to destroy our own community,” Sovine said. “We’re trying to say, ‘Hey, what’s going on in our community is unacceptable.’”

In their letter, business owners complain that they had obtained “expensive liquor licenses” and were subject to routine code inspections, while individual vendors are “illegally selling large volumes of alcohol, marijuana, and a range of other illicit substances … [and] are brazen individuals who conduct their business in plain sight because they know Baltimore City will do nothing to prevent or punish them.” Two of the establishments are part of a restaurant group that local residents accused of racial discrimination last year for barring people from entering, the Baltimore Sun reported.

While right-wing pundits often use Baltimore as a stand-in to describe increasing homicides across the country, the city has seen a reduction in other violent crimes. There’s evidence that the increase in shootings in major cities is a result of ease of access to guns.

“This is a resource issue, and it’s counterproductive to use our limited law enforcement resources on these lower level offenses,” Mosby said, noting that many such offenses often lead to a death sentence for people of color. “Freddie Gray merely made eye contact with police in a high-crime neighborhood, and decided to run. Sandra Bland failed to put on a turn signal. She ended up dead. Eric Garner, allegedly selling loose cigarettes. George Floyd, allegedly passing a counterfeit $20 bill during a global pandemic for groceries. Daunte Wright — it’s either air fresheners or expired tags.”

Join The Conversation