There are plenty of signs that Baltimore street violence is out of control: higher crime rates, clogged court dockets, bystander shootings that have become almost routine. But none is more startling than the idea of the nation's largest civil rights organization calling for martial law in the inner city.
"We did it to get people's attention," said George N. Buntin Jr., executive director of the Baltimore chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "We wanted to wake people up."
Tonight, the organization will see if it has succeeded. The NAACP is sponsoring an anti-crime meeting at an East Baltimore church, and on the agenda is the Baltimore branch's recent call for the use of state troopers or National Guardsmen to stabilize inner city neighborhoods.
That suggestion has provoked a spectrum of reactions. "It's scary, but we've gotten a lot of favorable reaction," Mr. Buntin said. "Mostly from people who live in those areas most affected. When you mention civil liberties to those people, their response is that they've already lost their civil liberties. They can't go out of their door."
In fact, Mr. Buntin said, the organization would like to see additional police or guardsmen deployed without the limitations on civil rights that normally accompany martial law: "People are frustrated. Something has to be done to reduce the fear in these areas."
The organization scheduled tonight's meeting for 6:30 at the Mount Sinai Baptist Church at 922 E. Preston St., only a block or two away from the site where 3-year-old Andre Dorsey lost his life to a stray bullet last month. Mr. Buntin said the child's death and Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's response provoked "outrage" among many NAACP members and supporters: "The mayor seemed to be shrugging and saying that there was nothing he could do, that it was a sign of the times," said Mr. Buntin. "That response disturbed a lot of people."
But the problem goes far beyond any one incident, Mr. Buntin said.
In the Eastern District alone, there were 39 homicides and 638 serious assaults in the first six months of this year. Those figures represent an increase of 178 percent in the district's homicide rate and 43 percent in the aggravated assault rate.
Overall, serious assaults are occurring in Baltimore at a rate 24 percent higher than during the same six-month period last year. Over a five-year period between 1987 and 1991, felony crime is up by nearly 30 percent in the city. Meanwhile, the homicide unit has recorded 184 slayings so far this year -- 24 more than at the same period last year. If the trend holds, Baltimore will this year record more murders than ever in its history.
In the wake of this crime wave, the capabilities of the city Police Department are an open question. The department's strength is now more than 2,800. Two decades ago, the patrol division alone included almost that many sworn officers; the city has lost more than 1,000 police positions to attrition.
"That's why we're calling for state troopers and guardsmen," says Mr. Buntin. "We know that it isn't a long-term solution, but we've got to do something to stabilize these neighborhoods. What we've got out there is a Wild West mentality."
In addition, the NAACP chapter will propose that Mayor Schmoke and Police Commissioner Edward V. Woods find a way to reallocate officers and money for police services from downtown to neighborhoods hardest hit by violent crime.
The organization is also calling for the Police Department to refocus its enforcement efforts on violent offenders rather than street-level drug traffickers, who are regularly arrested but rarely detained by a system that has no place to put them.
Of more than 6,600 defendants convicted of drug offenses in Baltimore in 1990, more than 5,400 were placed on probation.
Tonight's meeting is to begin with NAACP officials hearing from crime victims, residents and community leaders and city officials.