New York state of crime

Policing: The Big Apple's 'zero tolerance' crime-fighting initiative has won raves, but not from Baltimore's leading officials.

April 18, 1999|By Peter Hermann

THREE YEARS AGO, a Baltimore City Hall delegation sped to New York City to get a firsthand look at a new police initiative dubbed by the media as "zero tolerance," widely credited with the Big Apple's unprecedented drop in crime.

Led by Third District Councilman Martin O'Malley and accompanied by State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy, the contingent returned and wrote a 30-page report titled "The Success of New York City's Quality of Life/Zero Tolerance Policing Strategy."

"Zero tolerance" is the name for vigorous law enforcement that requires police action for every infraction, no matter how trivial. Proponents say ignoring trivial offenses creates an air of lawlessness that emboldens criminals.

New York has about 40,000 police officers who not only go after violent criminals but also vigorously enforce laws against jaywalking, littering, spitting on the streets and other petty crimes.

O'Malley and other local zero-tolerance supporters pointed to New York, where crime dropped, and to Baltimore, where it was up, and concluded it was an effective crime-fighting concept.

"Clearly, what we are doing in Baltimore isn't working," O'Malley said after the three-day visit. He added later that New York police "are succeeding. We should try to do what they are doing."

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier expressed concern that zero tolerance would inevitably lead to civil rights abuses by police. In addition, they maintained that the city courts, already swamped by cases, would not be able to handle the additional load that zero tolerance would bring.

Baltimore's leaders rejected the plan as the city struggled to curtail crime. The homicide figure remained high and finished 1998 at 314 despite a desperate year-end blitz by police to keep the killings under 300 for the first time this decade. It was an embarrassing failure that made national news.

At the same time, New York City's murder rate was dropping dramatically. In 1990, New York, with roughly 10 times the population of Baltimore, recorded 2,262 homicides. By 1996, the figure had dropped to 986, and last year it was 629, about twice as high as Baltimore's murder count.

As New York's homicide rate dropped, and Baltimore's remained out of control, Baltimore police officials bristled at speculation about the effectiveness of zero tolerance.

Today, Baltimore police commanders are smiling. Crime is down in Baltimore. Sixty-five murders were recorded here during the first 3 months of 1999 compared with 95 during the same period last year -- a 30 percent drop.

Meanwhile, a New York Times poll published last month found that an overwhelming number of residents approved of Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani's handling of crime, and nearly half of those surveyed said the city is safer under his tenure. But nine out of 10 black residents accused the police department of brutality.

Four New York officers are on trial, charged with using a plunger handle to sodomize a Haitian immigrant, Abner Louima, in a precinct house in 1997.

Four other officers were indicted this month on second-degree murder charges in the shooting death of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed West African immigrant. The officers fired a fusillade of 41 bullets, hitting Diallo 19 times. His death has sparked protests and pitted Giuliani against leaders of the city's minority residents, who accuse him of being insensitive and condoning police brutality.

New York police tactics have been questioned in other ways. Forty-thousand citizens were stopped and questioned by officers in 1997 and 1998, though less than one-fourth were arrested. More than half of the gun seizures have been thrown out of court for lack of constitutional searches.

Baltimore police maintain that the turmoil in New York is proof that zero tolerance is a bad police strategy that leads to even worse public-policy issues.

Col. John E. Gavrilis of the Baltimore police says the department is doing a good job of enforcing the law without infringing on constitutional rights.

But O'Malley said last week that he wants the police to practice "assertive" policing rather than the "aggressive" policing exemplified by New York's experience with zero tolerance. "I'm not calling for more arrests. I'm calling for more enforcement," he explained, adding that the Diallo shooting could have happened as easily in Baltimore or other cities.

"I can see why from a public relations standpoint that [Frazier] would be smiling at New York, but we still have a lot to learn about how they police," he said.

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