To Elizabeth Embry, reducing violent crime in Baltimore while also reducing arrests is not wishful thinking; it’s the only way forward. She has put together a Blueprint for Fighting Crime that views improvements in education, economic opportunity, business investment, public health, and housing as fundamental to curbing crime.
It’s this kind of holistic approach that Embry credits with helping to reduce violent crime and homicides in the city to historically low levels during her tenure as Deputy State’s Attorney.
Embry sells herself as someone who will offer her superior management skills to a pathologically mismanaged city. “I understand how systems work, and I know how to fix them, and I know how to bring people together,” she recently told the Baltimore Sun. But contrary to the slightly impersonal business speak, Embry’s prescription for the city evinces a healthy dose of empathy — a simple sense that we gain together or not at all.
We asked Embry about what spurred her to run and what an Embry administration would offer the city.
Baltimore Fishbowl: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Elizabeth Embry: I learned from my father that the message is more important than the messenger. Good ideas can come from anywhere which means being open, shedding preconceptions and actively seeking the best ideas, not waiting for them to come to you. It also means evaluating the merits and the data to see what works.
BFB: The unrest that followed Freddie Gray’s funeral showed mayoral leadership includes the ability to navigate a crisis. What is the most important thing for a mayor do in that situation? What would you have done differently if you were mayor on April 27?
EE: Leadership is the mayor’s first and foremost role every minute of every day; particularly on a day like that. As a mayor I would be visible, in charge of the situation, and ensure that I and all of our city and community resources have clear lines of communication.
Not being present was inexcusable and in part the cause of many of the things that went wrong that day. Confusion reigned as the MTA, BCPSS, the police and fire personnel, and neighborhood leaders failed to communicate effectively.
We also learned that there are people and resources located within the neighborhoods who were not visible to city leaders and who could have had much to offer. We need to do a better, more aggressive job of identifying who these people are and reaching out to them to work more closely with them in the future.
The failures of April 27, however, were not simply failures on that day. They were the result of a culture of confusion and ineffective leadership. It was as much the lack of planning, inadequate communication leading up to the events, and failure to properly equip and direct the law enforcement and other responding agencies, that allowed the unrest to spiral out of control.
BFB: In your work as Deputy State’s Attorney, you achieved “the highest conviction rates against violent criminals on record” while also “transferring minor cases against nonviolent offenders into diversionary programs, and increasing access to drug and mental health treatment.” Is it a complicated balancing act to curb violent crime while also making sure that Baltimoreans are not needlessly caught up in the criminal justice system? If not, why does it seem that the city as whole has not been able to get it right?
EE: It is not, and the city did get it right when I was there. We brought homicides to under 200 for the first time in over 30 years and reduced violent crime to the lowest levels in nearly 40 years. And we did it while reducing arrests.
The city can get it right again, and do even better, by combining a focus on driving down violence with a systemic approach targeting the underlying drivers of crime: poverty, addiction, and the lack of good job opportunities.
BFB: On that same topic: you’ve released a detailed Blueprint for Fighting Crime. Do you believe that crime is the number one issue in this election? What are the most important, innovative elements that will make it effective?
EE: Crime is clearly the number one issue; I hear about it in every meeting and in every encounter with constituents. And it is first because it is interrelated with many of the other things that we need to fix: education, jobs and the economy, business investment, public health, and safe and affordable housing.
Beyond stopping arrests for possession of marijuana (which always garners attention from the media and in community meetings), my B lueprint for Fighting Crime is innovative in its systemic approach. We will replace a high-arrest policy that burdens entire communities with best practices and proven approaches to target the most dangerous people and places that drive the violence on our streets. We will rebuild the community’s trust in the responsibility of the police to protect and serve us all. We will bring an end, at long last, to the war on drugs. We will provide a network of support for at-risk juveniles while they are young, so they do not commit acts of violence once they are older. And we will offer an open hand to ex-offenders when they leave prison.
BFB: What are the “recycled ideas” that you see being offered that spurred you to run for mayor?
EE: One thing is clear. That Baltimore suffers from a serious lack of leadership in the mayor’s office. What has been consistent over multiple administrations is the willingness to pass the buck on issues that are critical to the success of Baltimore. From our school system to the Housing Authority, from our community college to our public transportation system, from our rent court to our bail system, our leadership has been silent.
In every area, I will take responsibility and have a voice for the people of this city. No recent mayor has been willing to take responsibility for the performance of our schools. I will be responsible for our schools and bring to bear all of the city’s resources to support them and hold North Avenue accountable.
Baltimore can not accept the status quo of a transportation system that is inefficient, unconnected and poorly managed. We need to have an approach that unifies that system and holds the MTA accountable. Again, past administrations have been all too willing to pass the buck. I won’t do that.
We must reject the status quo in favor of bold new ideas and leadership that brings people together to get the work done with the kind of urgency that the people of Baltimore deserve.