Martial law for Baltimore?

July 14, 1992

Two weeks ago, when the Baltimore NAACP held a planning session prior to its "anti-crime meeting," some board members did not show up. Now those members are among frantic callers trying to find out what the civil rights group meant by proposing martial law to end city street violence.

"Yes, it was a stunt," George N. Buntin Jr., executive director of the Baltimore chapter of the NAACP, acknowledged. But street violence and indiscriminate shootings are real: "We've got to do something. We can't just throw our hands up and say that this violence is a sign of the times."

Setting up a "Citizens Martial Law Committee" will be an agenda item at the NAACP's anti-crime meeting July 29 at Mount Sinai Baptist Church, 922 E. Preston St. That committee will then try to figure out whether any of the methods used to curb Los Angeles' riots could be applied in Baltimore.

Of particular interest is the way that authorities in Los Angeles were able to retain control over National Guard troops and other outside law enforcement personnel in the aftermath of those disorders. Such an arrangement might come in handy in Baltimore, too, if outside law enforcement on a massive scale is ever needed to curb crime.

A more immediate concern to the NAACP is the current deployment of local police. The organization believes too many officers are assigned to the central business district, an area with one of the lowest crime rates in the city, while problem neighborhoods may go uncovered. "Let's ask the mayor and the police commissioner to allocate the money where the problems are. If the mayor refuses, let's have a referendum," Mr. Buntin said.

The NAACP challenge comes at a time when the city police department is in the beginning stages of what is expected to be a five-year phase-in of community policing. That change will include newly drawn borders for police districts and a wholesale redefinition of police duties. An officer on the beat is expected to be more than a crime-fighter. He or she is envisioned as a community problem solver.

In the meantime, guns and violence continue. Talk about martial law at this point may be mostly braggadocio. But such talk emphasizes how random killing can be stopped only if the communities become organized and uncompromising in their desire to get rid of guns and violence.

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