Zero tolerance on Baltimore crime pushed Some on City Council favor New York policy

mayor, Frazier don't

August 23, 1996|By Robert Guy Matthews | Robert Guy Matthews,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK SUN STAFF WRITER RAFAEL ALVAREZ CONTRIBUTED TO THIS ARTICLE. — NEW YORK -- Here inside the high-tech nerve center of the New York City Police Department's crime-fighting center, some members of the Baltimore City Council say they have found the weapon that will shoot holes in the Schmoke administration's crime-fighting policy.

Completing a three-day visit yesterday, council members say they see an aggressive police force that, unlike Baltimore's, cracks down on even the smallest of nuisance crimes from loitering to carrying an open container of alcohol in public.

"Clearly what we are doing in Baltimore isn't working," said Councilman Martin O'Malley, who led the delegation to study New York's crime strategies, which can be tracked on computers in the crime-fighting center.

He says the council members will appeal to Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke to change the Baltimore Police Department's focus to closely mirror New York's. And if that doesn't work, O'Malley said he will ask the public to pressure the mayor and the police commissioner.

But he'll have a hard time persuading Schmoke and Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier, who believe New York's zero-tolerance policing would needlessly clog the courts without diminishing serious crime.

The mayor and Frazier have de-emphasized arrests for small-time drug offenders, studied the decriminalization of heroin in Europe and cut back on the number of neighborhood police sweeps because the arrests were jamming courts.

Frazier dispatched his representatives to New York this week to dig up evidence that zero-tolerance policing doesn't work. And Schmoke said yesterday that a policy of the kind endorsed by the council members wouldn't "dramatically affect crime rates, particularly not homicide."

The mayor also noted that New York has hired 6,000 additional police officers.

"If the City Council is interested in passing a revenue measure that allows us to hire 600 new police officers, I will sign it in a heartbeat," Schmoke said, quickly adding that that would be impossible under the current tight budget.

The five council members, saying they were frustrated with the Schmoke administration's policies, traveled Tuesday to New York to determine how that city has managed to sharply reduce its crime rate at a time when Baltimore's rate has continued to rise.

The council delegation consisted of John L. Cain, Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., O'Malley, Stephanie Rawlings, Rochelle "Rikki" Spector and the chief of staff of council President Lawrence A. Bell III. City State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy and representatives of the Fraternal Order of Police and the community also went.

"Here in New York City, if someone is committing a quality-of-life crime, they are getting busted," said 4th District Councilman Mitchell. "I'm tired of hearing people in my district say that they are leaving because they are tired of seeing prostitutes around their homes."

'Not the answer'

But, like Schmoke and Frazier, Jessamy doesn't think Baltimore should model itself on New York.

Her office has decreased emphasis on small drug arrests, doubling the amount of drugs it takes to charge a suspect with felony distribution. Anything fewer than 30 bags of heroin or 30 rocks of crack cocaine is prosecuted as misdemeanor possession.

Zero tolerance, she said, "is not the answer." She contends that the council members could have spent their time in Baltimore learning more about what is going on there.

"It's always good to learn new things and explore new possibilities," Jessamy said.

"A lot of the council people have not been to the Baltimore courts and have no idea what we are doing. Many of the things that they are fascinated about in New York are in some form or fashion being implemented in Baltimore."

Not a model, but it works

After meeting with police, court and other law enforcement officials, council members concluded that New York City wasn't the model of zero-tolerance crime fighting that they initially believed.

But "we now know that something close to it works," Spector said.

According to the FBI's National Crime Index, in 1995 New York City had a 25 percent drop in murders. Homicides in Baltimore rose from 321 in 1994 to 325 in 1995, a 1 percent increase.

But New York City's impressive numbers can be attributed to factors that aren't necessarily connected to a less tolerant crime-fighting strategy, Schmoke and others say.

For one, the department's force has grown by 6,000 to about 36,500. And even though New York City has a population that is roughly 10 times larger, Baltimore, with 3,100 officers, has fewer per capita.

Battle against jail crowding

And New York is struggling to keep its courtrooms and jails from clogging, said Inspector William Calhoun, commanding officer of the Office of the First Deputy Police Commissioner.

To alleviate potential logjams, police officers have a system in which they can issue summonses to people without taking them into precincts for booking and arrest.

Instead, the criminal offenders agree to show up in court at a future date. But the failure-to-appear rate is high in these cases -- more than 75 percent, according to New York City police officials.

Small crimes offer leads

Despite these problems, New York police officials say that cracking down on small-time offenses often leads to solving big cases.

Council members were told of a case this week involving an elusive burglar. Although police haven't caught the suspect, they now know his identity because he left fingerprints that match those when he was arrested on a minor loitering charge.

"Conceptually, this is a matter of building intelligence," O'Malley said. "I think this approach can work. I'm not sure we need to have every little piece in place. But we are failing and they are succeeding. We should try to do what they are doing."

Pub Date: 8/23/96

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