Law enforcement task force tackling violence in Baltimore

BALTIMORE (AP) — A federally funded task force representing more than a dozen federal, state and local law enforcement agencies was unveiled Wednesday, charged with investigating violent crime in Baltimore.

U.S. Attorney in Maryland Robert Hur announced the strike force, which will focus on gun- and drug-related crime. Members will work from a shared location in the city, allowing law enforcement to work more efficiently.

Baltimore has been in the throes of a worrying increase in violent crime since 2015, when the homicide rate spiked after civil unrest followed the death of a black man in police custody. The Maryland city tallied more than 300 homicides in 2018 for the fourth year in a row.

"The strike force will identify the people responsible for the most violence in our region, then use the tools and intelligence from every single partner agency to build investigations in order to hold those people accountable," Hur said. "... All of us in law enforcement know that the best way to remove the greatest threats from our neighborhoods is to do it together by coordinating with our partner agencies, sharing intelligence and leveraging each other's strengths."

Baltimore becomes the 15th U.S. city to have such a strike force to fight crime.

It's called the Baltimore Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force Strike Force. Members include agents from the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Maryland state troopers, officers from various police departments, and federal and state prosecutors are also part of the group.

There has long been an escalating arms race among Baltimore's gangs that has turned some neighborhoods into high crime zones, particularly in the most deeply disenfranchised areas. Street gangs dramatically drive up the rates of violent crime by introducing illegal firearms and narcotics with a street value greatly exceeding the size of the surrounding neighborhood's legal economy, according to authorities.

Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison said the group will "enhance our ability to rid Baltimore of its most violent offenders."

Although the strike force was formally announced Wednesday, it has already been at work for more than a year.

Hur credited the strike force for the recent drug-related indictments of more than 30 people, some of whom are also facing gun counts. Twenty-five of the defendants are accused of selling heroin, crack, fentanyl and cocaine to individual drug users as well as in bulk to other drug traffickers, who then redistributed the drugs in other neighborhoods.

Hur declined to say how much money the U.S. Department of Justice has awarded the group.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan praised the announcement of the group.

"This is exactly the kind of coordinated, all-hands-on-deck approach that we need in order to take back our communities, get the shooters off the streets, and save lives," he tweeted.