Take Back the Streets

GLENN MCNATT

January 09, 1993|By GLENN McNATT

On the same day residents of Charles Village met to discusswhether to hire private security guards to police their neighborhood, City Councilman Lawrence A. Bell III held a press conference to call for the resignation of Baltimore Police Commissioner Edward V. Woods in six months if no progress is made in halting the city's soaring homicide rate.

That the two events occurred almost simultaneously obviously was no coincidence.

A note of desperation has entered discussions of what to do about the deteriorating quality of urban life. Last summer the local NAACP director suggested imposing martial law in high-crime neighborhoods. Residents of Guilford now have their own private security force patrolling the neighborhood, and the downtown area may soon adopt a similar plan. Even public-housing residents have asked the city to hire Nation of Islam security personnel to patrol their buildings.

Whole communities are virtually under siege by drug dealers and violent criminals. When the U.S. sent troops to Somalia to guard food shipments from marauding bandits, editorial cartoonists parodied the mission with drawings of hapless inner-city residents dodging gunfire on the streets right here. So Councilman Bell and the residents of Charles Village are by no means alone in their complaints.

''I fault the department on two counts,'' Mr. Bell said. ''The department has failed to take down the major drug traffickers and it has failed on the street level by not being an effective deterrent.''

A couple of years ago, Washington's police chief became so frustrated by the homicide epidemic plaguing his city that he promised to resign if the killings didn't drop within a year. The year came and went and the killings kept climbing. The chief threw in the towel and quit.

Unfortunately, his departure didn't make a bit of difference to the homicide rate. Washington recorded slightly fewer killings in 1992 than the year before -- but people have been moving out of the city so fast that fewer are left to be killed. No one's claiming the problem is solved.

Similarly, residents of Charles Village are wondering why they should pay an additional 5 percent on their property tax to hire private security guards when they are already paying the highest tax rate in the state. The money would fund six off-duty policeman to patrol a 50-square-block area from 20th Street to 29th Street between Guilford Avenue and Howard Street.

''Figure that's two guys every eight hours to cover something like three square miles,'' one resident complained. ''That's not going to make me feel any safer.''

Yet almost everyone agrees that something must be done. Unless we're prepared to simply resign ourselves to the relentless killing.

Four years ago Mayor Schmoke suggested decriminalizing drugs take the profit -- and incentive for violent crime -- out of the illegal trade. The Clinton administration says it wants to refocus federal policy away from catching drug traffickers to treating addicts.

There's merit to both ideas, but neither will produce quick results. The state has been cutting the number of drug-treatment slots. It never funded more than a few hundred beds for recovering addicts, yet there are some 30,000 heroin addicts in the Baltimore region alone.

No wonder the vaunted ''war on drugs'' has been such a pathetic failure. The link between drugs and violent crime isn't in dispute. Some officials estimate that as much as 80 percent of the serious crime in Baltimore is drug-related.

Yet we still seem stuck with a policing model based on the assumption that the problem can be solved simply by ''locking 'em up and throwing away the key.'' The jails are bursting at the seams and a whole generation of young men have been branded with the stigma of a criminal record, but it hasn't made a dent in the crime problem.

What's the solution? Put more cops on the street and speed conversion to community policing. Help the hardest-hit areas beef up security with yellow-hat patrols and block-watch programs; the city should contribute the hats and walkie-talkies. Communities that can afford it should hire private security firms. And let voters hold elected officials' feet to the fire until they get results.

Things have gotten so bad we're going to have to fight like hell to take back our streets and our city. But that means we have to work together, not against each other. Resignation isn't an option.

Glenn McNatt writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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