Baltimore's Spiral of Violence

July 03, 1993

Violence begets more violence. Just look at Baltimore's spiraling homicide rate. If slayings continue at this pace, the city will break the record 355 murders of 1992.

The gut reaction of some politicians is to blame the local police leadership. But the homicide epidemic is a crisis that has relatively little to do with Police Commissioner Edward V. Woods' running of the department. At its core are drugs, which are a national scourge with international implications, and a nationwide cult of media violence. It has numbed Americans to accept random killings as part of big-city life.

Local measures -- such as aggressive community policing -- can put a damper on some lawlessness and violence. But if America's macabre obsession with death is to be ended, the country has to face the truth and recognize that things are getting out of hand. The justice system is overburdened, the war on drugs is widely regarded as a joke.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke called attention to these realities this week when he urged President Clinton to convene a national summit on violent crime.

"We face a national emergency that is a greater threat to the future of this country than is the adventurism of foreign lTC governments such as the one in Iraq. Violence in America is the enemy within and we must defeat that enemy now," the mayor said, urging the administration to rethink national policies on handguns, narcotics and corrections.

Five years ago, Mr. Schmoke started a lonely campaign for decriminalization of drugs. His suggestion is still far from popular. While serious questions remain, it is increasingly seen as an intriguing policy alternative.

In his two-page letter to President Clinton, Mr. Schmoke urged the administration to:

* Convert an unspecified number of the military bases scheduled for closing for use as prisons for violent offenders.

* Target a revised economic stimulus package on youth employment and fight the high school drop-out rate by allowing the money to be used for year-round and seasonal employment.

The mayor also urged the president to provide cities with the 100,000 police officers Mr. Clinton promised during his presidential campaign.

Mr. Schmoke, a long-time friend of Mr. Clinton, is unlikely to do anything to embarrass him. The mayor's public call for help demonstrates his desperation. The measures that have been tried have not worked. It is time to consider new strategies.

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