Battle looming over zero tolerance 2 advocates must sell nTC idea to colleagues

August 25, 1996|By Robert Guy Matthews | Robert Guy Matthews,SUN STAFF

As City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III and Councilman Martin O'Malley push for a new police policy of near-zero tolerance in Baltimore, the question becomes: Can the pair complete the task when the mayor and the police commissioner vow to keep the status quo?

Even if Bell and O'Malley can reconcile the ramifications of near-zero-tolerance policing -- such as clogged courtrooms and jails -- their biggest hurdle could be persuading other council members to listen to the message and to not pay attention to the messengers.

Bell and O'Malley have earned reputations as dogged Schmoke administration critics and, consequently, cause many of their council colleagues, who usually support Schmoke, to dismiss their ideas as typical of their hostility toward the mayor.

"I don't view this as throwing sticks at the mayor," Bell said last week. "Frankly, I'm losing patience with people who say we can't it."

Bell dispatched a five-member council delegation to New York City last week to study why that city posted sharply lower homicide rates last year while Baltimore saw a slight increase. The group, headed by O'Malley of the 3rd District, concluded that the New York City Police Department's policy of cracking down on even the smallest of nuisance crimes helped slow crime.

Bell and O'Malley want the system instituted here. Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier say that it is too expensive and that Baltimore would need more officers and better support from other law enforcement agencies.

Fifth District Councilwoman Helen L. Holton, who was not part of the New York delegation, said she hopes the council will be able to overlook personalities and focus on the issue.

"I think there will always be the feeling that because this person or that person said it, there is nothing good to come from it," Holton said.

To reverse the current, more tolerant policy, Bell and O'Malley would have to get the council on board, along with community leaders, to pressure the mayor and the police commissioner.

That will be difficult because the mayor has support from the majority of the council. But in Baltimore neighborhoods, where the idea of zero tolerance resonates with residents, some community leaders have begun to push the idea.

Hair salon owner Tony Sartori, past president and a member of the Mount Washington Business Association, has put up signs asking for zero tolerance.

He says he hasn't taken political sides but simply wants to stem criminal activity around his upscale salon.

"This is a campaign to get back our neighborhoods," Sartori said Friday. "I'm seeing crime come down here from the light rail. Cars are being broken into. My store is being broken into. There should be no more tolerance for crime."

But what many city residents have yet to grasp is that the cost of zero tolerance is very expensive, says city State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy.

Baltimore's Central Booking and Intake Center would have to be overhauled, because each arrest made by officers takes them off the street for three to four hours.

More courtrooms and judges probably would have to be added, and jail space would have to be found.

"When you are thinking about zero tolerance, you have to keep in mind the resources," said Col. See Zero, Ronald L. Daniel, chief of the Police Department's Field Operations Bureau. In Baltimore, "it would be ridiculous at this point. It doesn't make sense."

Fourth District Councilwoman Sheila Dixon says many council members are frustrated with Baltimore's crime rate. But pressuring the police to do more is only part of the answer, she says. "Lawrence and Martin can push this , but if the court system isn't on board, it won't work," Dixon said.

Though a frequent and vocal critic of Bell and O'Malley, Dixon says she doesn't think her two colleagues' past criticisms of Schmoke will cause other council members to dismiss their concerns about rising crime.

"I don't think it will stop the community or the council from getting behind this no-tolerance issue," said Dixon, who later said, "I also think that this is also a platform for O'Malley to further his political career."

Acknowledging that a Bell- and O'Malley-backed platform on crime could cause some to take the opposite position out of habit, O'Malley says he will work to keep personalities in the background.

Bell said, "I don't think it is important who provides the solution at this point. I hope the commissioner and the state's attorney and [members of] the judicial system will be big enough to look beyond the personalities involved in this. None of us should defend the status quo by reflex. I would love to see us come together and learn from other experiences."

Pub Date: 8/25/96

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