Md.'s public officials are failing Baltimore

February 15, 1999|By Barry Rascovar

WELCOME to Baltimore, where the blame game is now a popular pastime. The city has a gruesome crime rate, a harassed and demoralized police department and a court system in meltdown.

What are officials doing? Denying any responsibility for what's going on.

As The Sun's editorial, "Getting away with murder," clearly pointed out yesterday, the situation is a mess. There's no accountability, little cooperation and a burning desire on the part of most officials to avoid being blamed for this disgraceful predicament.

It symbolizes for all too many Marylanders the sad decline of Baltimore. The city rates as one of the nation's murder capitals, yet the mayor is nowhere to be found in crafting a solution. Nor will you find the governor's fingerprints anywhere near the scene.

But they're not alone. The "I'm not involved" defense is a popular one. Deniability seems to be the theme of the day.

This is a complicated, multi-level dilemma. It involves all three branches of state and local governments, plus branches of the federal government. It involves multiple levels of agencies within each branch, too.

The lack of communication and coordination, even within agencies of the same branch of government, is appalling.

It's no wonder that people are fleeing Baltimore. If local government cannot reduce the murder rate, cannot curb mounting gun violence, cannot straighten out public schools, why should residents continue to live here?

This is a crisis, but no one is approaching it that way.

Where's the urgency at City Hall? Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who played a role in creating this crisis by keeping the courts and State's Attorney's office on starvation budgets, has been voiceless. He's counting the days 'til he leaves office.

Other city politicos are preparing for the coming local elections. Gridlock in city courts, the police department, the State's Attorney's office, the public defender's office, the Central Booking and Intake Center, are all grist for campaign speeches and not much else.

Where's the sense of urgency in the State House?

Baltimore's crime-and-punishment crisis failed to appear on Gov. Parris Glendening's radar screen, or that of his criminal-justice specialist, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, until The Sun exposed the depth of the breakdown in law enforcement and criminal justice.

State legislative leaders are clucking about this sorry state of affairs, but no one is pushing for a dramatic state response.

In the courthouse, officials have hunkered down, protecting their own bailiwicks. The worst offender may be State's Attorney Patricia Jessamy, who has been "totally defensive" and unhelpful, according to one lawmaker who listened to her testify. And no wonder: She's running for mayor and doesn't want to take the blame.

Chief Judge Robert Bell, of the Maryland Court of Appeals, is in the best position to straighten things out. Yet he is wary of offending his judges or taking on officials outside his jurisdiction. He wants to lead, but not if it means making unpopular decisions.

It is truly tragic. Well-meaning individuals have been so wrapped up in protecting their turf, insulating themselves from criticism and playing political games that no one has stepped forward to fix things.

You don't have to be a brain surgeon to find answers. Take the horrendous waste of $54 million at the state's Central Booking and Intake Center. It is a dysfunctional facility because no one wants to invest the money or personnel to make it work properly. Yet the governor, mayor and Maryland's chief judge could straighten this out. But they'd have to step on some toes and knock heads together. And they'd have to show some creativity and take the initiative.

It's called leadership.

Cities that are making a comeback have strong mayors. They have criminal justice and law enforcement officials committed to doing whatever it takes to clear up problem situations. That's not true in Baltimore.

And sadly, there is little help coming from Annapolis. Once, Baltimore was the crown jewel of Maryland, the city where companies set up shop and people wanted to live. No longer. It is becoming an albatross for the rest of the state.

The present crisis represents the best opportunity for officials to put together long-term solutions for city courts and law enforcement. If they fail to seize the moment, Baltimore will continue its tragic disintegration.

Barry Rascovar is a deputy editorial page editor.

Pub Date: 2/15/99

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