Eye-for-an-eye mentality won't solve the problem

Wiley A. Hall 3rd

September 22, 1992|By Wiley A. Hall 3rd

OK, let's give the mayor what he wants. Let's sweep through Maryland's Death Row like avenging angels and put everyone sentenced there to the sword. Let's make it so that the halls of the Maryland Penitentiary run red with the blood of convicted murderers.

Do you think that would eliminate the violence gripping city streets? Do you think it would reduce the violence even a little bit?

Frankly, I don't think it would.

That's why I think the mayor's call for implementation of the death penalty was entirely irrelevant; a human, but ultimately irresponsible reflection of the anger and frustration that we all feel; perhaps even a politician's cheap and cynical trick to tap into the public's lust for vengeance. Other politicians play this game all the time. I thought Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke was made of stronger stuff.

In two days this weekend -- in two separate, unrelated incidents -- two city police officers were shot following a struggle with a suspect.

Officer Ira Weiner, 28, died shortly after midnight yesterday. He allegedly had been shot with his own service revolver in West Baltimore Saturday by a 29-year-old man. The man, Lewis Thomas, was shot and killed minutes later by other officers on the scene.

On Friday, Officer James E. Young, 26, was shot in the head with his own gun while struggling with a suspected drug dealer at the Flag House Courts housing project in Southeast Baltimore. Officer Young is in critical condition at the Maryland Shock Trauma Center.

After the second shooting, Mr. Schmoke met with reporters outside the hospital.

"The death penalty in this state has just got to happen," he said, his voice shaking with emotion. "Our police are fighting a battle with one hand behind their backs. Criminals are shooting first and asking questions later. There is an element in the community that needs to understand that if you take a life you lose a life."

I am sorry, Mr. Mayor, but speedy executions will not empower police and will not reduce violent crime.

At best, more executions would satisfy the public's demand for vengeance. But even that satisfaction would prove short-lived, like a sugar high. After each execution, the streets would remain just as dangerous as they did before, and both police and the public would continue to feel just as frustrated and angry.

You empower the police by doing all the things that Mayor Schmoke has advocated in the past: better schools, greater job opportunities, treatment on demand for substance abusers, universal health care, effective intervention for young non-violent offenders so they do not graduate into the big leagues of gratuitous violence. This was the way society responded to the last great crime epidemic in the early 1970s, and it worked.

But, as Mr. Schmoke has pointed out, the federal government in the 1980s all but abandoned its commitment to crime prevention through social welfare, and states like Maryland lacked both the will and the resources to pick up the burden.

A few years ago, when the mayor called for a debate on decriminalization of drugs on the grounds that we are losing the war on drugs, national and state leaders were forced to concede that their much ballyhooed war had never truly been launched.

Last winter, as the primary election campaign got under way, Mr. Schmoke took the lead in asking each of the presidential candidates to articulate their urban policy. He eventually endorsed Democrat Bill Clinton.

All of which suggests that Schmoke is not really as simple-minded or as hysterical as he sounded on television and in the papers this weekend.

His own public positions suggest that he understands that the response to the shooting of a police officer -- or for that matter to the shooting of any citizen -- is not the death penalty.

That penalty is a reaction to a tragedy that already has occurred.

The appropriate response, the only relevant response, is to pursue policies that will stop such tragedies from happening again.

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