The police commissioner of Baltimore started the first working day of the new year the same way he starts every other day: finding out how many people are no longer among the living.
The discouraging news: On the first day of the new year, two people were murdered.
"I could put a police officer on every corner of the city," Commissioner Edward Woods said yesterday, "and it wouldn't matter. The moment the officer moves away, that's when the incident happens."
He is talking not only about murder, but about the inability of everybody in power to stop it in 1990. The old year ended with 305 people dead by willful violence in the city, and the commissioner meeting with a troubled Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, and then meeting with him again two days later.
"Oh, he's very determined," Woods said yesterday. "He's upset. He's saying the same thing I am, that this can't go on any longer."
This is nice to hear, but not entirely comforting. Everybody has good intentions about cutting crime, but how do you do this when the police are overextended, the courts are backed up, the prisons are flooded, the government's broke, the bruising economy has raised the level of desperation in the streets, the drug traffic is thriving, and much of the crime is drug-related?
"We call on God," Woods said yesterday.
But God is only the court of last resort.
The mayor is now openly criticizing judges for lenient sentencing. He's already said we need to talk about legalizing narcotics.
Also, he's saying we need more money.
Did somebody say money? In 1989, the federal government budgeted roughly $2 million for drug rehabilitation programs for state and local prisons.
In 1990, it budgeted exactly nothing. In other words, you put drug abusers behind bars, and you do almost nothing about their biggest problem while they're under your control, and then you send them back to the streets no better than when they arrived.
All this, while the president of the United States proclaims drug abuse one of his top priorities and expects that some people will actually believe him.
Meanwhile, did somebody mention tougher prison sentences? On Monday, the final day of 1990, there were 17,250 inmates in this state's Division of Correction. The system's only built to hold 12,000. In some of these prisons, they've got inmates sleeping in what used to be called libraries, sleeping in gymnasiums, sleeping any place officials can put a mattress.
While this is going on, we had a report last week that about 50,000 people in the city of Baltimore are under some form of court supervision or probation. Tougher sentences? Sentence them where?
The mayor wants the cops to work more closely with federal agents on drug cases. The idea is to place federal charges against major dealers. This does two things: It imposes mandatory sentences; and it does it in federal lockups, thus taking some of the pressure off state prisons.
Yesterday, Mayor Schmoke went to Washington for the swearing-in of D.C. Mayor Sharon Pratt Dixon. When he got back to town, he met again with Woods to talk more about getting tough on crime -- specifically, this time, about redrawing police district lines, with an eye toward keying in on the toughest neighborhoods.
One area of concern: gun control.
Remember gun control? The state of Maryland puffed up its chest a few years back and slew the forces of darkness, also known as the National Rifle Association, and voted in handgun-control measures.
But the measures are wimpy. Everybody knows it, and the
arithmetic of murder makes it clear.
But why aren't we hearing early drumbeats from Annapolis about newer and tougher measures to combat guns?
"I'm not against guns for hunters," Woods said yesterday, moving immediately to head off law-abiding gun-owners' concerns. "But guns in the hands of our . . . well, degenerates is the word . . . those are the guns we've got to get off the streets, and we're not doing it right now."
Is anybody in Annapolis listening? Is anybody in Washington listening?
The cities cannot go it alone.
It's encouraging to see the mayor and the police commissioner putting their heads together, but it's fooling no one to think they can solve things all by themselves.
"I'm happy the mayor's showing all this concern," Woods said yesterday. "He's sensitive, he's caring, but he's also saying we can't go on like this. The problem is, we both know that we can't arrest ourselves out of this situation."
Also, we can't get out of it with money (of which there isn't enough) or prisons (not enough). The mayor talks of community involvement. The police commissioner talks of encouraging phone calls from citizens.
And, when all else seems hopeless, he says he calls on God.