Tough talk won't calm citizens or rattle thugs

WILEY A. HALL

January 14, 1993|By WILEY A. HALL

All of us are angry about crime and frustrated by the seemingly endless violence. But the last thing the city needs is for our leaders to turn into fearmongers.

Last summer, for instance, we didn't need the NAACP to ask the governor to declare martial law, which would allow him to blanket the streets with National Guard troops.

Last fall, we didn't need the mayor to take advantage of our grief at the shooting death of a city police officer to call for the speedy execution of those people currently on death row.

And last week, we certainly didn't need City Councilman Lawrence Bell to demand that Police Commissioner Edward Woods reduce crime within six months or resign.

Mr. Bell, D-4th, charged that although 1992 was one of the most violent years on record, neither the mayor nor the police commissioner responded "in a meaningful way to the crisis." Neither man expressed outrage or disgust at the carnage, Mr. Bell complained. Neither man announced bold new initiatives to combat crime. Neither warned the bad guys that from now on, the city would be merciless toward lawbreakers.

"People need to feel that you're mad," Mr. Bell explained yesterday. "We need leadership that will give people hope, boost their morale, make them feel that things are getting done. Otherwise people are going to give up in despair."

Mr. Bell ought to know better. Talking tough might get you votes. It might win you plaudits from other politicians. But the criminals won't be frightened and in the end, the public won't feel any safer. We have had 12 years of tough talk out of Washington. The governor has been talking tough for years. Suburban officials bluster and swagger like schoolyard bullies and yet for all of that, crime and violence only escalate.

Last year, the city made 18,644 felony arrests. On any given day, over 56 percent of the city's young black men are either incarcerated, on parole or probation, awaiting trial, or being sought by police. Judges are handing out ever-longer sentences and state prisons are bulging. Yet, people still feel besieged. They still complain that we're too soft.

For that matter, the commissioner could strap a pair of six-shooters around his waist, mount a prancing stallion, and go galloping through the streets of Baltimore like the Lone Ranger -- and people will continue to despair. The president and the governor could declare martial law and post armed soldiers on every corner with orders to shoot anything that moves and people still won't feel safe.

Angry rhetoric, emotional appeals, and shallow, simple-minded solutions to crime are nothing more or less than rabble-rousing and fear-mongering. Fearmongering is not leadership. It is the opposite of leadership.

Frankly, the Urban Initiative put together by Kurt L. Schmoke and his fellow mayors and endorsed by president-elect Bill Clinton is the best anti-crime package I have seen in quite a while -- better even than community policing, which city officials are touting as the newest magical, anti-crime elixir.

The urban initiative offers a blueprint for urban empowerment: effective schools, affordable health care, greater job opportunities, and programs that promote home ownership for low- and middle-income wage earners. Day care and recreational facilities for kids also would help reduce crime, as would vocational education leading to real jobs.

We live in a state that a few years ago proposed to evict entire families from public housing -- the elderly and women and children, too -- if just one member was suspected of trafficking in drugs.

Last week, the state launched its version of welfare reform: a plan to punish a child's poor school attendance by cutting the size of the family's benefits.

And we wonder why people despair?

For a long time now, city officials have tried to focus the public's attention on the roots of the despair that grips so many citizens. These leaders have been the sole voices of sanity amid the political cacophony. Last week, however, Councilman Bell broke ranks and joined the rabble-rousers. It definitely was not a step in the right direction.

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