Coping with City Crime

June 30, 1991

Baltimore's law-enforcement and criminal-justice system is under attack -- and losing ground to the enemy. A huge jump in the homicide rate has severely strained the city's police department and its prosecutor's office. The result is a city where one-third of the killers are never caught, eight of 10 killers never see the inside of a jail cell and police and prosecutors are overworked and understaffed.

Reporters David Simon and M. Dion Thompson outlined these worsening problems in The Sunday Sun last week. It is a frightening situation in which the lack of financial support from City Hall and the State House gives criminals a distinct advantage.

Police department detectives are overmatched. They don't have the experienced manpower to do the kind of exhaustive sleuthing that is essential to apprehend and then convict a suspect. Crime labs are so inundated with evidence that samples often spoil before they are tested. There is no computer data base to help detectives narrow the list of suspects or even compare information, especially on the growing number of drug-related crimes.

And the state's attorney's office doesn't have the personnel to handle all the serious cases adequately. Few prosecutors or police officers establish pre-trial contact with witnesses. The lack of manpower means there is often no physical evidence presented in 70 percent of the cases -- a crucial reason why 15 percent of these criminal cases are dismissed for insufficient evidence.

Of all the affected elected officials, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke should be the most sympathetic. When Mr. Schmoke was state's attorney, he regularly complained of insufficient funding. Yet Mr. Schmoke as mayor has been just as stingy toward the state's attorney's office -- even though its criminal caseload has grown by 6,300.

Elected leaders in City Hall and the State House have to start looking at Baltimore's crime problem more seriously. A takeover of the state's attorney's office by Annapolis would be a welcome step. Mr. Schmoke, too, has to target more aid toward the police department. However it is done, the governor, state legislature and mayor should come up with additional resources. Letting the criminals go free is simply unacceptable.

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