As a police commander, Maj. Wendell M. France has spoken out forcefully about the unrelenting violence on city streets.
As a father keeping a bedside vigil for his wounded son who was shot last weekend, he utters a pronouncement that is painfully obvious -- yet so often ignored by the gunmen who have turned Baltimore streets into a battleground.
"No parent should have to experience this," the major said, summing up his family's tragedy while in the waiting room at the Maryland Shock Trauma Center.
Early Saturday, France's 18-year-old son, Brian, was wounded in the left side of his face and left shoulder while sitting at or driving slowly through a West Baltimore intersection.
The shooting was the latest in a steady stream of violence last weekend that has once again left city officials to answer for the city's rising death toll. Eight people have been slain in Baltimore since Thursday.
France, the former head of the homicide unit, commands the Eastern District station, directing more than 200 officers who patrol the most dangerous city neighborhoods. He has broken painful news about dead relatives to more people than he cares to remember -- often in the same hospital waiting room where he now waits for his son to recover.
"We don't need any more programs," France said yesterday, soon after his son spoke for the first time since the shooting. "We need to stop with the gimmicks. When people violate the law, hold them accountable and cut out the foolishness. Stop letting the whole criminal justice system be the mockery it's becoming.
"The real solution is not in the arrests. It's what happens after. Time and time again, people have gone through the arrest cycle only to be right back in our face. Maybe if a judge's son gets shot -- that would be horrible, but they could feel what I'm feeling. I'm tired."
Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke wants criminals to turn in their guns for a $100 reward. Some City Council members want zero-tolerance policing that goes after the most petty of crimes. There are proposals to allow state police troopers to patrol inner-city streets, and for more money to buy computers to track violent offenders.
The week France was shot illustrates how brazen gunman have become.
On Thursday, a police officer on his way home from work saw a gunman shoot two people, one fatally, on a busy street near downtown. The same day, two more people were killed, including a 20-year-old slain in a dispute over a $25 basketball fee. A clerk at a Korean grocery also was shot and wounded in a robbery attempt.
Three people were killed the next day, including an 85-year-old man found beaten to death inside his home on the 4200 block of Kelway Road. A police officer found the body of John L. Savage in his living room.
And 44-year-old Stephen Wittig, who lived in Westminster, was fatally shot in the chest when, police said, he got into a dispute over a bag of drugs on Bryant Avenue in Northwest Baltimore. He died at Liberty Medical Center while talking to a homicide detective.
Two people were killed Saturday, including a 16-year-old boy who was shot during a robbery in Northeast Baltimore.
On Sunday, an undercover homicide detective, staking out the area where Brian France was shot, shot a man who apparently tried to rob him, not knowing he was a police officer.
The spate of slayings brings to 24 the number of people killed in Baltimore this year, one more than had been killed last year at this time. So far, police have made arrests in six of this year's killings.
Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier said yesterday that his department would make getting guns off the streets a top priority.
"We absolutely have to send the clearest message to every level of the department that crime is the issue," he said. "We're in the process now of making some internal adjustments to focus even more directly on guns and gun violence."
The commissioner said he visited Brian France in the hospital.
"This young man is [his family's] pride and joy," he said. "And rightfully so. As professionals, we see victimization all the time, but you never think you are going to be there as a parent. It's exceptionally difficult. How do you make sense out of the unspeakable?"
Police have not made an arrest in the France shooting, and details were still sketchy yesterday. Major France said his son, a graduate of Mount St. Joseph High School and a nursing student at Villa Julie College, was on his way to a friend's house early Saturday.
France said his son apparently had forgotten a promise to walk a friend's dog, and was driving from his house near the Johns Hopkins University to Eutaw Street when he encountered a gunman on Presstman Street, near North Fulton Avenue.
"Some guy just walked up the car and opened fire," the major said. "That's about as much as we know."
With a bullet still lodged in his neck, Brian France has had trouble breathing. He spoke a few words for the first time yesterday. His condition has been upgraded from critical to serious.
France said the shooting had drawn his family closer, and he is still convinced that Baltimore "is a good place to live." For him, the solutions have more to do with faith than new initiatives.
"I'm real confident that we can get a lid on things," France said, trying to put his own family tragedy into perspective. "It's just a minor setback to me, but it doesn't shatter my faith in the people in this city."
Pub Date: 1/28/97