Stopping traffic to stop murders Schmoke says city will copy successful program in Cleveland

Chance to get guns, drugs

September 18, 1998|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF Staff writer Peter Hermann contributed to this article.

Baltimore police will enforce traffic laws more aggressively to interrupt drug trafficking and confiscate illegal guns -- actions they hope will cut the city's homicide rate.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke announced the change in approach to traffic enforcement yesterday after visiting Cleveland on Wednesday, where police routinely ticket red light runners, speeders and people making illegal turns.

The northeast Ohio city of 500,000 has similar demographics to Baltimore but a much lower homicide rate. Last year, Cleveland had 84 murders, a rate of 16.8 slayings per 100,000 residents.

Baltimore, with 670,000 residents, had 310 homicides last year. That translates to a rate of 46.2 slayings per 100,000 people, almost three times higher than Cleveland.

A major difference in the two cities' crime-fighting strategies, Schmoke said, is that Cleveland police wrote 253,000 tickets -- almost three times as many as Baltimore police.

Like Cleveland, many major American cities have experienced a sharp drop in crime because of a strong economy, stricter prison sentences, a weakening crack trade and community policing policies that include crackdowns on minor "quality of life" crimes through traffic violations, police there said.

"Now that doesn't sound like it has a direct link to the homicide numbers, but in fact it did," Schmoke said of the Cleveland traffic enforcement program. "It increased the visibility of police in the neighborhoods."

Schmoke, who served as Baltimore state's attorney for five years beginning in 1982, said the effort "allowed the police to make more stops that led to searches and seizures that led to both drugs and guns."

Employing traffic stops to fight crime has been a controversial practice nationwide because of allegations that it leads to disproportionate police searches of blacks.

In June, the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit against the Maryland State Police accusing them of racism because three out of four motorists stopped over a 21-month period beginning in January 1995 were African-Americans.

The state police denied the charge, saying they are complying with a 1995 federal court order prohibiting racial discrimination in drug searches.

The U.S. Senate is considering a measure dubbed the "Driving While Black" bill that would require the U.S. attorney general to collect data on traffic stops and searches in order to show patterns of racial bias.

Cleveland ACLU leaders said yesterday that, aside from initial complaints over police seizing radios from city residents cited for noise violations, they have received little negative reaction to the aggressive traffic enforcement program started two years ago.

"We haven't gotten any unusual complaints," said Gary Daniels, litigation director for the ACLU of Ohio. "It's kind of a revolutionary way to combat crime throughout the country."

Schmoke has been frustrated with Baltimore's inability to reduce city slayings since his election in 1987. While other American cities have experienced drastic drops in crime, Baltimore crime has risen 18 percent since voters elected Schmoke.

In the past three years, Baltimore police have announced significant drops in most major crimes. But the city has experienced 300 homicides per year since 1989, making it the fifth deadliest city in the nation.

Baltimore Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier has spurned City Council requests to adopt the so-called "zero tolerance" policing policies -- in which all violations of the law are addressed. Zero tolerance has been credited with helping to reduce crime in major cities such as New York, New Orleans and Los Angeles.

In addition to concerns over the judicial system's ability to handle increased arrests, Frazier has worried aloud about the civil liberties issues.

But Schmoke noted that unlike New York, Cleveland is comparable to Baltimore with equally high poverty rates. Cleveland's population is 50 percent African-American (compared with two-thirds black in Baltimore) and city lacks a large subway system that would require more police protection.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Cleveland had more than 200 slayings annually. Last year, the number of homicides dropped to a 33-year low. Cleveland Police spokesman Sgt. Mark Hastings attributed the decline in part to a more aggressive street presence through ticketing.

"People see the lights, people see the police cars," Hastings said. "They know that if you come into Cleveland, you're going to be stopped, so they don't carry the guns and they don't carry the drugs."

Baltimore police issued 87,000 traffic tickets last year. Earlier this year, police announced more aggressive traffic enforcement along North Avenue in a crackdown on drugs and guns. But they acknowledge that traffic stops have not been a high priority in street patrols.

"Sometimes we're just too busy," said Maj. Eugene Yeager, head of the city's Violent Crimes Task Force. "Our focus is violent crime and open-air drug markets. I don't think we ever looked at traffic stops as combating drugs before."

Frazier sent two colonels to Cleveland two weeks ago to study the operation. Like Schmoke, Baltimore police said they like what they saw.

"It stops bad people from going through an area if they know that police are stopping cars," Yeager said. "You have marked cars with lights flashing on the street. It makes people more comfortable about being there."

Pub Date: 9/18/98

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.