Public officials try to worsen a bad situation

Wiley A. Hall 3rd

September 24, 1992|By Wiley A. Hall 3rd

Things fall apart. The center cannot hold. Mere anarchy is loose upon the world. The blood-dimmed tide is loosed and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned. The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.

-- The Irish poet W. B. Yeats

A city police officer dies.

Another lies wounded.

A third, in Baltimore County, survives an assassination attempt only by the grace of God.

When city officers respond to a reported shooting at a public high rise, they are confronted by a handful of angry residents who shake their fists, shout epithets and pelt them with debris.

Infants are killed by their parents. Armed bandits snatch people from their automobiles. Children and other innocent bystanders are struck by stray bullets as drug dealers shoot it out on public streets. Things do indeed seem to be falling apart.

But the terrible aspect of these recent days -- the single development that seems most to signal the coming of anarchy -- is that public figures seem determined to make a bad situation worse. It is these public figures who represent, in Yeats' words, the worst, "full of passionate intensity."

First, the mayor called for speedy execution of the 10 men currently on death row in Maryland. Why? Because, said the mayor, "criminals need to learn that when you take a life you lose a life." This seemed wildly inappropriate under the circumstances and downright inflammatory. But the governor, not to be outdone, has taken up the call, declaring, "I have no feeling at all" for the convicted murderers.

Meanwhile, on the radio, Ron Smith, a conservative talk-show host, proclaims that police departments can maintain order only through the use of force, by being "the biggest, baddest gang in town."

With him on the show is Charles F. Milland, a city police lieutenant, who talks about the "good old days" when police were free to stop, frisk and arrest whomever they wanted without concern for such "touchy, feely" concepts as due process and probable cause.

"We know who the bad guys are," asserts Mr. Milland. "Give us 30 days, for instance, to do things our way and I guarantee that we can take back the streets."

And Don W. Helms, president of the city's Fraternal Order of Police, urges city officials to help "instill fear in criminals" by putting more officers on the streets and giving them greater leeway.

In the midst of this terrible crisis, while the worst hold the floor, spewing venom and promoting fear, the rest of us can only be confused and saddened by the escalating tensions.

Lt. Barry Powell, for instance, is confused and saddened. He is a 21-year veteran of the force and a former president of the Vanguard Justice Society, an organization of black officers.

"First of all, let me make clear that all police officers, white or black, are uneasy about the situation, this escalating street violence," Lieutenant Powell said yesterday. "It affects all of us the same way.

"But we've also got to be very, very careful when we talk about 'getting tough' and 'instilling fear.' Not everybody is going to hear that the same way. Some people are going to interpret those kinds of words as a call to get tough on everybody, the good and the bad. We don't want to turn this town into a police state."

Lieutenant Powell, a Baltimore native who grew up in Northwood, noted that most of his friends and neighbors respect the police. As for the troublemakers who confronted and insulted officers the other day, the lieutenant describes them as "the takers. And I don't work for them anyway.

"My community needs the police. They want the police. But you [speaking of his brother officers] don't need to fuel the flames. You don't need to give the troublemakers ammunition."

George Buntin is another who is confused and saddened. Mr. Buntin is executive director of the Baltimore National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

"I have to tell you, the kind of talk I'm hearing now is downright scary," Mr. Buntin said yesterday. "It's like the irrational acts of criminals are followed by the irrational statements of public officials. It's as though the criminals have lost their heads and that gives police and public officials an excuse to lose their heads."

Mr. Buntin said that the people he represents, African-Americans, are the ones most victimized by crime and most eager to see something done about it.

"Our people depend on law enforcement, just like everybody else," he said. "But we don't have the blind confidence in law enforcement that everyone else has. We have this fear, and it comes out of our experience, that when you unleash the police they run roughshod over the community. We want police protection, but we want them to respect our rights, too. Police sometimes see black as wrong and they will ask questions later. That's what we don't want to happen."

L Finally, I must confess that I too am saddened and confused.

Can so many public figures truly be this blind and stupid to believe that anger is an appropriate motivating principle -- and that fear can be an appropriate goal? Have they become fascists?

If so, an even worse crisis will emerge from the present one.

Things will fall apart.

The center will not hold.

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