Drop in crime pays for Houston's mayor

January 24, 1994|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,Staff Writer

HOUSTON -- When he first ran for mayor in 1991, Bob Lanier promised to do something about crime -- and he did.

He added the equivalent of more than 600 police officers and brought in a new police chief who emphasized basic police work and downplayed a community policing project. The result has been a two-year decline in major crimes of 22 percent, including a drop of 26 percent in murder -- and a handsome political payoff for Mr. Lanier. Last November, he was elected to a second two-year term with an extraordinary 91 percent of the vote.

In Baltimore, where a record murder rate has been set two years running and open-air drug markets proliferate, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke -- who faces a potentially bruising campaign for a third term next year -- has begun to carry out his own plan for dealing with rising crime. He has opened neighborhood community policing offices; found money in the budget to hire 180 new officers and asked police officials to speed up their training; and last month appointed a new police commissioner.

Comparing crime rates among cities -- let alone methods for reducing them -- is a chancy proposition, particularly when the cities are as different as Houston and Baltimore. Yet the question raised by the experience in this Sun Belt city is whether Kurt Schmoke can do for Baltimore what Bob Lanier has done for Houston.

"Crime's a complex problem and there won't necessarily be the same answers one place as another," concedes Mr. Lanier, 68, a multimillionaire land developer with a slow Texas drawl and a quick mind. "But the idea that there's no magic bullet doesn't mean you do nothing. You can do a great deal."

One thing that is sure to be the same in Baltimore as Houston is the political importance of the crime rate, particularly for Mr. Schmoke, who won 58 percent of the vote in the 1991 Democratic primary in his first re-election campaign. "All of us are going to be judged at least in part on how we address that issue -- especially the mayor and the executive branch," says Baltimore City Councilman Lawrence A. Bell IV, a 4th District Democrat who will chair the hearing on the nomination of Tom Frazier as police commissioner. The hearing is set for Feb. 2.

The importance of the crime fac- tor comes despite obvious differences between the two cities. Houston is a sprawling Sun Belt city of 1.7 million residents, 53 percent of whom are white, 28 percent Hispanic and 27 percent black; Baltimore, an aging East Coast city with fewer than half that many people, 60 percent of whom are black.

Differences in approaches toward crime between the cities are striking, too:

* In Houston, Mr. Lanier immediately created a comprehensive police overtime program that added the equivalent of 655 officers to the city's undermanned 3,900-member force until more officers could be trained. He did it by scrapping a monorail project he describes as a "boondoggle" to get money to pay for the program, drawing accolades for decisiveness but getting some criticism for his method of financing.

* In Baltimore, Mr. Schmoke twice tried unsuccessfully to get money to hire more police by raising income taxes before piecing the money together from last year's budget. He steadfastly refused calls to use a one-time surplus in last year's police budget to hire more officers, saying he needed a consistent method of financing. He came in for criticism for that, but no one has said his method of paying for the officers is anything but sound.

* In Houston, the new police chief, Sam Nuchia, has all but abandoned the Neighborhood Oriented Policing project in favor of a centralized strategy that includes targeting parole offenders and making aggressive sweeps in high-crime areas.

* In Baltimore, community policing, where citizens work with police to solve problems, remains a central part of the city's long-range anti-crime plan and is a key element in Mr. Frazier's policing philosophy.

And in Houston, there is a sense of mutual respect and admiration between the police chief and the mayor that Baltimoreans can only hope will develop between Mr. Schmoke and Mr. Frazier.

'Can-do attitude'

"We have a mayor who's a real leader because he has a can-do attitude," says Chief Nuchia, a former Houston Police Department deputy and federal prosecutor whom Mr. Lanier tapped as police chief shortly into his first term.

"His job is to run the police department. My job is to get him the resources and give him the backing," says Mr. Lanier.

Hubert Williams, head of the Washington-based Police Foundation and the man who led the search for a new Baltimore police commissioner, cautions against drawing too broad a conclusion from Houston's numbers. But he adds: "The statistics are interesting and deserve a better focus than has been given. It might be well to take a closer look at them."

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