What We Owe to Officer Weiner

September 22, 1992

C Baltimore weeps for Officer Ira Weiner, 28, who is dead. It weeps for Officer James Young, 26, who is critically wounded.

Citizens of this whole region are wondering whether this mindless cycle of violence can be stopped or whether their town is becoming a "city committing suicide," as a city councilman put it.

Police have a special contract to uphold a civilized society and its orderly way of life. For that reason, an assault on a police officer is a violation of the whole society and its laws. For such a heinous crime, many states often impose the death penalty. After all, if police officers can be killed or maimed at random, every citizen is vulnerable.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, in the wake of last week's two police shootings, urged that Maryland reinstate executions by gas chamber. "The death penalty in this state has just got to happen," he declared. "Our police are fighting a battle with one hand tied behind their backs. Criminals are shooting first and asking questions later."

We question this approach. The death penalty would further dehumanize us all without providing either a deterrent or panacea. It is not going to stop some drug-crazed participant in a domestic incident -- traditionally the most dangerous of law-enforcement situations -- from reaching for a gun and killing an officer. Neither is the death penalty likely to stop an undercover officer from being overpowered and shot during a drug bust.

We would much rather see a full-fledged campaign against the whole culture of violence. As a way of halting the dangerous spread and use of guns, we urge that national attention be given to the possibility of removing the profit motive from the drug trade. For it is the drive for money, to feed a habit or a lucrative life style, that is turning our city into a battle zone and spawning a criminal system that stretches from the Andes to the local street corner. "Decriminalization will not solve this country's drug abuse problem, but it could solve our most intractable crime problem," Mr. Schmoke said when he first proposed the move in 1988.

At the time, this newspaper did not endorse Mr. Schmoke's decriminalization proposal. Too many questions needed to be answered -- and still do. But at least decriminalization offers an alternative to the terrifying epidemic of drug-driven violence which is eroding our whole society.

There are no simple answers for the complicated conditions of a poor and angry urban center such as Baltimore. But rather than mere expressions of grief for two fallen officers, this is a time for serious stock-taking of a criminal justice system that is just not working.

This is the least we owe to Officer Weiner.

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