Monday, November 27, 2017

Why a $50,000 SUV for neighborhood patrol is a poor use of impact funds

The use of $50,000 of community impact funds for a privately owned Chevy Tahoe "command" SUV decorated to look like a Baltimore police vehicle used to patrol a neighborhood by a religious organization raises so many questions that it is hard to know where to begin.

There is the obvious question how useful a gas-guzzling, pollution spewing monster SUV is a suitable tool in creating safety in an urban neighborhood. If those drive around patrols must happen at all, they should be made in friendly looking clear windows electric vehicles. Then there are the more obscure questions of who made the decision, how do Casino or lottery impact funds get allocated and why did this particular safety group get the vehicle and not another. Finally there are the more general issues such as what role citizen pretend-cop safety patrols like Shomrim (Hebrew for guards) play or should play and if they should or can play a role in regaining safety in this city.
Shomrim "police" command vehicle: A good use of $50,000?

Here is what happened:

The online publication Baltimore Jewish Life reported about a successful banquet during which the Mayor handed a symbolic key to the Tahoe.
Shining on the outside wall of Congregation Shomrei Emunah was a ten-foot-high illumination of the Baltimore Shomrim Safety Patrol’s emblem. It was clear from the very start that this was not just another community gathering but a special, not to be missed, event.  
Mayor and Councilman with Tahoe "key" (Yehudis Kruk Photography)
the emcee of the Shomrim Anniversary Banquet, I had the unique vantage point of looking out over the completely filled hall. It was impressive and overwhelming all at the same time. To see the broad range of elected officials, the multitude of the various law enforcement agency uniforms and community members from all walks of life, really brought home the message that Shomrim is a critical communal organization that the community relies on every day. It is such a fantastic feeling to be part of an organization that wants nothing more than to be there for their neighbors when they are in a time of need. We are so grateful for the community’s strong and unwavering support. ...We also want to thank Councilman Schleifer for being the driving force behind obtaining the command vehicle and Mayor Catherine Pugh for presenting the vehicle that will definitely make a difference for the entire community. “ 
Nathan D. Willner, Esq., Shomrim’s General Counsel and Director of Government Relations, Baltimore Jewish Life
The Tahoe with all the menacing attributes of police car branding,
including a "cow-catcher" ramming bumper
The banquet took place on November 11, the Baltimore Brew picked up the Jewish Life story on November 22 which created an uproar in online forums such as Baltimore City Voters.. The SUN also reported about the Tahoe gift on 11/22 but added the story on on 11/26 in the print edition. After a lot of back and forth it also seems pretty clear that the money is not from the Horsehoe Casino funds but from Video Lottery Terminals funds allocated for Northwest Baltimore which come from the Pimlico Race Track and are allocated with 75% for Park Heights and 25% for communities north of Northern Parkway. According to Councilman Schleifer, the vehicle purchase was covered by the 25% north-of-Northern portion of the funds.

What is effective crime prevention?

One would assume public funds should be concentrated where crime is the highest. Most of the crime in the Park Heights community occurs south of Northern Parkway, not in the are north of Northern Parkway where the command vehicle will chiefly cruise. Police have long been criticized for replacing foot patrols in favor of driving in powerful vehicles, a practice that removes officers from the community and provides no interaction except when the officers swarm out of the vehicle in reaction to something they observe. The ineffectiveness of this type of policing has long been established and one can safely assume that it applies to private citizen patrols in the same way.
Shomrim patrol members carry what looks like uniform jackets

Shomrim, just like the police, has been drawn into accusations of having a race bias fueled by one incident where a Shomrim member was alleged to have beaten an African American. The group closely works with police. In New York Shomrim provides policing and emergency medical services in certain neighborhoods and uses ambulances, patrol vehicles and command centers. Shomrim was first established in the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Boro Park, Crown Heights, Flatbush, and Williamsburg in the United States, in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Similar patrols were later established in US Haredi neighborhoods in Baltimore, Miami, Waterbury, Connecticut, and London, England.
In response to increasing crime trends in our local community, a group of concerned citizens founded Shomrim of Baltimore, Inc. in October-2005, as a 501(c)3 non-profit community organization whose overall mission is to improve public safety and security. We respond to calls received on our hotline, (410) 358-9999, 24 hours a day/365 days a year, and our personnel are normally on-site within minutes.
Currently, we have over 30 volunteer incident responders who provide security and safety assistance in the Northwest Baltimore Neighborhood which encompasses parts of Baltimore City and Baltimore County. We work very closely with both police departments by assisting them in deterring crime, being additional ‘eyes and ears’ in our neighborhoods; thereby helping them make more arrests and improve the overall quality of life in our neighborhood. In fact, in some cases the police request our assistance in cases such as missing persons, community events and other matters. (Website)
Even setting aside a debate about privatization of government security services and the issues of possible misuse of power by self appointed citizen patrol members, it is a questionable crime fighting strategy to expand on the reactive policing technique that has proven to be ineffective in the first place in a city that already has an above average police density. Most analysts have concluded that a city with a high crime rate cannot arrest itself out of crime without addressing the root causes of crime, namely pervasive poverty and the resulting dysfunctions arising from it.
2018 funding plan:
Hatzalah or Shomrim? Ambulance or Command vehicle?

How to best use the gambling funds?

Lottery and casino gambling have presented the State and Baltimore City with what many consider considerable windfalls. As has been pointed out many times, those profits are a disproportionate burden on poor under-educated residents and negatively affect poor communities. Additionally,  the idea of extra public money creates new dependencies and reduces transparency of the use of public funds in political behavior not unlike the  "The Gambler's Fallacy." The Video Lottery Funds, Casino Funds and whatever other slush funds are out there are poorly supervised and tempting sources to feed whatever popular requests are out there without a truly strategic approach.
“The public system should be designed so that it leads people to do the right thing. When you set up a system in which the gambling industry and state government have interests in common, you do the opposite. You create a system that encourages back-room deals.” Earl Grinols, an economics professor at Baylor University. (CityLab)
Pimlico Local Impact Aid eligible areas
The Pimlico funds distribution is suggested by a local development authority and reviewed by the Mayor. For the 2018 budget, Mayor Pugh sent a response letter to the citizen committee. In it there is mention of an ambulance to be included for the 2018 budget but no mention of Shomrim or a patrol vehicle.
Pimlico impact fund spending rules

In a cost benefit analysis a command vehicle would probably fare pretty poorly when compared to other possible use of $50,000 in addressing the crime, safety and quality of life issues in Park Heights. But neither the Casino funds nor for the Pimlico funds are guided by a good long-term strategy. The various masterplans that have been created to guide the future of the "impact" communities are simply not specific enough to manage considerable funds year after year. The Pimlico funds for 2018 amount to a stately $7.8 million, an amount of annual money that could turn an area around if it would be spent strategically, but only perpetuates misery if spent poorly.

Of course, the casino and the lottery enabling bills that brought gambling to Maryland, were all wrapped around school funding and education. To date there is no outcome based evidence that the availability of these funds has achieved what was promised. (See SUN article of January this year). Talking about education is not a digression from the question of the "command" Tahoe since lack of education is the strongest predictor for poverty and poverty the strongest predictor for the lack of public safety.
Hatzalah Baltimore EMS vehicle
"While gambling was sold as a way to bring in more money for education, it really hasn't been putting more money in schools. We've essentially invested the same amount of money in our schools that we would have with or without legalized gambling." (Benjamin Orr, director of the Maryland Center on Economic Policy.). That's most pronounced in Baltimore, where the Horseshoe Casino has generated more than $200 million for the Education Trust Fund since it opened in 2014. Baltimore public schools have received less state money — not more — than they did before the casino opened. The system is dealing with a $129 million budget gap this year, and stands to lose $42 million in aid next year under the state budget proposed last week by Gov. Larry Hogan. (Baltimore SUN)

With crime sky high in Baltimore many may think, any additional eyes on the street, what could be wrong with it? After some more deliberation, though, it becomes clear  that amidst the heated debates about Baltimore police which find themselves under federal oversight from the Justice Department due to inequitable policing and institutional social injustice, in the midst of the Black  Lives Matter movement, it is not prudent to give an obviously religiously and ethnically motivated para-police group a vehicle that is a total look- alike of a Baltimore City police car.
The Shomrim demonstrate that when the government funds inherently religious providers of social services, a constitutional gray area is created in the attempts to reconcile state action with the Establishment Clause. (Emory Law Journal)
That should be obvious, even before one gets into the questions swirling around how this particular donation came about and how it was vetted. It is high time that the use of those gaming impact funds gets screened and reviewed in public and with a much bigger emphasis on solving the root causes of the pathologies of the communities in which the funds can be be used by law.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Park Heights related articles on this blog:
Who Cares About Pimlico?
Park Heights: 64 Vacant Acres Still Waiting
Park Heights: Time to Learn from Failure
The Long Path to Park Heights Renaissance 

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