City Council draws bead on crime Baltimore officials want 'zero tolerance' to reduce murder rate

November 02, 1998|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

In the past three years, more people have been slain in Baltimore than the 632 city residents killed in the Korean and Vietnam wars combined.

As the city moves toward finishing its ninth straight year with more than 300 homicides, the City Council -- with a municipal election year approaching -- is trying to hold Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke more accountable for the fifth-highest murder rate in the nation.

Two weeks ago, the 19-member council passed a resolution renewing the call for Schmoke to adopt a so-called "zero tolerance" stance in dealing with the rising number of open-air illegal drug markets in the city, long considered the source of the bloodshed.

But unlike such calls of the past two years, the council adopted the measure unanimously, gaining support from Schmoke council loyalists.

"People are saying, 'I can't live here anymore, I can't sleep with the gunshots and the drug dealers on the street,' " said Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector, the longest-serving council member, who is entering her 16th year representing Northwest Baltimore.

Schmoke frustrated some council members by responding to the resolution with a letter asking them to define what they mean by zero tolerance.

The much-heralded crime-fighting strategy has been promoted as a solution that drastically reduced violent offenses in other cities through enforcement of nuisance-crime laws. Such enforcement helps officers arrest repeat criminals and stop them from committing more violent crimes, proponents say.

Schmoke and city police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier oppose the strategy, contending that city courts and jails would be unable to handle the rise in arrests if all laws were enforced. The city, already facing a budget deficit, would need 600 more police officers to implement the plan, Frazier said -- a contention the council denies.

"Zero tolerance is confusing to the public," Schmoke said. "It leads to an expectation that arrests will be made for all crimes, regardless of severity, at all times."

In his letter to the council, Schmoke said he also opposes the zero-tolerance term because it was used by Republican President Ronald Reagan for his anti-drug effort. Schmoke, a Democrat, has spoken favorably of decriminalization to address the national drug problem.

The mayor's lawyerly response outraged a Philadelphia police officer who spoke by invitation last week to the council about the rewards of zero tolerance.

"I wonder where your police commissioner and mayor [are] when he has to ask what's the definition of zero tolerance," said Officer Kenneth Rocks, a 27-year veteran and leader with the Fraternal Order of Police whose city recently adopted a zero-tolerance stance. "From a law enforcement officer's standpoint, I'd like to give it a little try."

Rocks cited a litany of offenses that cities such as Philadelphia have begun cracking down on to improve the quality of life.

"I will not tolerate the sale of drugs in my neighborhood," Rocks said. "I will not tolerate another citizen disgusted with the lack of service to move out of our community. I will not tolerate any crime on our streets. I will not tolerate underage drinking in neighborhoods. I will not tolerate vandalism, graffiti, speeding through school zones, complete disregard for traffic laws, abandoned homes and abandoned cars."

Baltimore police and prosecutors have enacted 40 percent of the zero-tolerance strategy, creating a Violent Crime Task Force and a computer system to pinpoint where violent crime occurs most. And Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy has called ,, for more minimum mandatory sentences for violent crime, another component.

But the state legislature has refused to give city police criminal citation powers -- the ability to cite someone for a crime and send him on his way, thereby cutting down on court time through arrest and preliminary hearings.

Court officials have balked at a component that would streamline bookings by allowing prosecutors to write up charges instead of police officers, enabling law enforcement personnel to get back on the streets more quickly.

Judges, concerned about jail crowding, have opposed creating district courts for quicker plea arraignments, which proponents said would relieve packed dockets.

"The police need the tools to fight the quality-of-life crimes and the support of the courts and the prosecutors," said Louis Cannons, a police officer and FOP leader in Washington, which implemented a zero-tolerance policy and saw murders drop 31 percent over the past four years.

Baltimore has had 258 homicides this year, up eight over the same period in 1997. Last year, the city recorded 310 and had the fifth-highest homicide rate in the nation.

Northeast Baltimore Councilman Martin O'Malley, the most vocal supporter of zero tolerance, recently related homicide statistics on the council floor showing how five Northeast cities have seen slayings drop since 1994.

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