Zero-tolerance only way to cut homicide rate

January 12, 1999|By Martin O'Malley

IT'S TIME to wake up, Baltimore, and learn from the vibrant U.S. cities that have turned the corner on street violence. As long as drug dealers rule our corners, all city efforts to improve schools and create jobs will be for naught.

New York, Boston, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles and some other cities are boasting significant decreases in their homicide rates. Even Washington, Philadelphia and New Orleans are now making substantial progress with zero-tolerance policing. In fact, virtually every major city has mustered the public will and know-how to reduce violent crime. Why not us?

Baltimore has lost more young people to homicide in the past four years than we lost in Vietnam. But that fact doesn't resonate with many of us who find false comfort in the idea that last night's homicide victim was not like us. We reason that such victims are black, poor, young and probably dealing drugs.

Those of us who live in safe neighborhoods kid ourselves into believing that the violence and murder doesn't affect us.

We pretend that we can attract national conventions here even as our high murder rate is broadcast in major national media outlets.

It is time to move beyond the excuses and change the way we police.

First a little history. Beginning in the late 1970s, police departments across the country started conceding ground to disorder and the low-grade violence of open-air drug markets. Faced with increases in all crime, they decided to focus on the "most serious crime."

Focus on drugs

Then, when drug use increased, many departments began targeting drug dealing. When drug dealing increased, they focused on "really serious drug dealing."

Eventually, many police departments wrote off entire streets, thinking they could just protect parts of neighborhoods. But soon entire neighborhoods were overrun with drugs and their accompanying violence.

In the early '90s, Pittsburgh, New York and Boston began throwing out such failed policies and instituted zero-tolerance policing, where they focused on little crimes and, subsequently, saw a decrease in big crimes.

These cities found that maintaining public order is also the means to apprehending repeat violent offenders, without violating their constitutional rights.

To bring Baltimore's homicide rate down, we must direct the police to maintain public order. Baltimore can no longer cede blocks of the city to open-air drug markets. We must raise our collective public expectation of civil order, obedience and decency.

Also, we must assign our most experienced detectives to the job of solving homicides. Rotating employees among a variety of jobs may be a good way to create a well-rounded staff at McDonald's, but it's no way to solve homicides.

And we must stop asking our police to do more than enforce the law and maintain order: They shouldn't be expected to take citizen complaints about potholes or coach Little League games.

While the concept is simple, it will take public will and political leadership to tear down the systemic roadblocks and excuses of the status quo.

If our court system's practices get in the way of a speedy trial so accused murders are freed, then we need to change the system.

Model cities

Baltimore can significantly reduce street violence. There are models of success throughout the country.

If we refuse to change, Baltimore will continue to decline. If we embrace reform and restore public safety, every other flower of human endeavor will grow -- schools, jobs, businesses, housing, arts and culture.

With public will and political leadership, Baltimore will join the ranks of big cities that are increasingly safe, growing and rejuvenating.

Martin O'Malley is a 3rd District City Council member.

Pub Date: 1/12/99

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