Crime steals peace of mind of city residents, officials Schmoke making strides

perception of danger remains CAMPAIGN 1995

June 15, 1995|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,Sun Staff Writer

In an article in Thursday's editions, The Sun erroneously reported that Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's re-election campaign hired Charles Dutton to do one-minute ads on local radio. Mr. Dutton, who starred in the television series "Roc," is donating his time.

+ The Sun regrets the errors.

They met with Baltimore leaders to talk about a wide range of problems, from the scourge of rats to the blight of boarded-up rowhouses. But the topic always came back to crime.

"We got a curfew law that stinks," shouted Lynn Smooth, just as Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke walked through the door to face 100 residents in Southeast Baltimore last month. "We got so much crime that the Police Department can't handle it."

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

Crime seems to be out of control. Pictures of bodies sprawled on city streets are vivid images in the news.

Thousands of people are robbed and assaulted; 13,000 cars are stolen; 15,000 homes are broken into; 40,000 thefts are reported. And that was last year. Baltimore homeowners are moving to the suburbs -- 51,000 have left in the past seven years.

For many, the city hardly seems secure.

"It is extremely difficult to measure whether a city is safe or not," said Officer Gary McLhinney, the president of the police union. "I think certain areas of the city are safer now than they were seven years ago. There are certain areas of the city that we've lost control of, and I don't know how we are going to get them back."

Bishop L. Robinson, secretary of the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said Mr. Schmoke is making strides. "If you want to know if he's done a good job, the answer is yes."

Mr. Robinson, who was Baltimore's police commissioner from 1984 to 1987 and has been in the criminal justice field since 1951, said the mayor led the way in negotiating a state takeover of the detention center, which will save the city hundreds of millions of dollars.

"It is not simply a problem that can be laid on the mayor or the police," Mr. Robinson said. "The police are but one factor in a cast of thousands needed to achieve crime reduction."

As the mayoral race between Mr. Schmoke and City Council President Mary Pat Clarke commands more attention in Baltimore, crime is very much on the minds of residents.

The answer to the safety question is grounded in perception and reality.

Mayor Schmoke kept former Police Commissioner Edward V. Woods at the helm despite criticism that the department was stuck in bureaucratic morass and that Mr. Woods could not ease citizens' fears.

When Mr. Woods retired in 1993, after serving four years, the mayor hired Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier, an articulate police chief from California with innovative ideas who has altered the course of the department. But some experts worry that the administration set itself up for a fall.

"Mr. Frazier's success or lack of success is going to be a major factor in the mayoral campaign," said Hayes Larkins, a former criminal justice professor at Baltimore City Community College and teacher at the police academy.

"If Frazier is not perceived as solving the problem, it's going to be Schmoke's fault."

Perception or reality?

Since Mr. Schmoke took office in December 1987, major crime has soared 40 percent. Last year, one of every seven residents was a victim.

From 1980 to 1987, major crimes -- homicides, rapes, robberies, burglaries, assaults and thefts -- decreased, from 76,000 to 65,000.

4 By 1990, that number had risen to nearly 78,000.

Last year, the FBI put the figure for Baltimore at 92,784.

The reason, according to the mayor and police commissioner, can be summed up in two words: crack cocaine. The epidemic hit Baltimore about the time Mr. Schmoke became mayor. "It looks like a spike on the chart," he said.

It is responsible not just for the escalating homicide rate, but for all sorts of other crime, from robbery and burglary to petty theft and shoplifting, police say.

"If I leave my sunglasses in my car, and somebody breaks my $300 window to steal them, they sell them on the street for $5," Mr. Frazier said. "And you say why $5? Because you are halfway to a $10 'ready rock.' And that is the fact of addiction."

The mayor and police chief say the drug problem is just as much a health issue as a police issue.

Mr. Frazier tackled the problem with large-scale drug raids concentrating on violent dealers, followed by an influx of city workers to clean alleys, erase graffiti and bring social programs to the streets.

At a recent City Council hearing, Mr. Frazier criticized what he called a "flawed strategy" of his predecessor for making what he called indiscriminate arrests that put addicts in jail while violent dealers roamed the streets.

"As drugs increased more and more, the department's answer was to make more and more arrests," the commissioner said. "It didn't make the kind of difference the department hoped that it would make."

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