Crisis in courts proves obstacle to crime plan

News conference delayed on campaign to cut homicide rate

U.S. attorney backs out

July 21, 1999|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

A crisis in Baltimore's court system prompted representatives from 14 city, state and federal law enforcement agencies to postpone their announcement last week of an unprecedented campaign to lower the city's homicide rate.

The news conference, planned for Thursday, was abruptly postponed despite being on Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's public calendar. Officials overseeing the plan's implementation attributed the delay to scheduling conflicts.

But had they gone forward with the announcement, a key participant would have been conspicuously absent. U.S. Attorney Lynne A. Battaglia said yesterday that she backed out because officials are not ready to implement the ambitious plan, which would fundamentally alter the way crime is fought in Baltimore.

"I'm not going to go to a news conference to announce a program until I'm clear that it has a chance of working," Battaglia said. "All of us have to give the public assurances that what we are doing is totally collaborative and that we can make a difference. This is a massive undertaking. None of us want to be part of a potential failure."

Sources said problems within the city's court system -- that had police and prosecutors blaming each other for bungled cases -- prompted concern that officials would be hard pressed to sell such a cooperative agreement with a straight face.

Over the past year, The Sun has documented a series of problems in the court system. The newspaper recounted how acute trial delays and other missteps led to the dismissal of serious criminal charges -- including murder -- against several defendants. Federal authorities intervened in one case, winning a conviction in U.S. District Court where the state system had failed.

Articles last week highlighted cases in which prosecutors failed to turn over evidence to defense lawyers during the trial procedure known as discovery. That problem led to more suspects being set free and, in one case, a man wrongfully convicted of murder. The stories also told of sniping between prosecutors and police over who was to blame.

Several state officials said Battaglia's objections triggered the announcement's postponement and identified the city's court system as a major obstacle.

"I don't know if the U.S. attorney's objections are petty and personal or whether they are more substantive," one of those sources said. "This [announcement] was a go until the discovery issue in your paper."

The squabble seems to offer evidence that internal disputes among law enforcement officials are hampering the city's effort to reduce crime.

Some aspects of the proposal, such as the arrest of more than a dozen hard-core criminals, are under way. But that is just part of a complex plan developed by Harvard criminologist David Kennedy, who in 1997 set up a similar program called Operation Cease Fire in Boston that gained national attention and is credited with dramatic reductions in that city's homicide rate.

Kennedy has been studying Baltimore's entrenched drug culture for 18 months, but his work has been shrouded in secrecy. He has declined interview requests, as have city officials who are working with him. The cost of the study is more than $600,000 -- $100,000 is from public money; the rest is being paid through grants from private foundations.

Yesterday, officials publicly played down the delay.

Hathaway C. Ferebee, executive director of the city's Safe and Sound Campaign, which is coordinating the study, said Kennedy might be available for an interview today.

Ferebee said last week's news conference was postponed "because of a scheduling conflict." She said that it was difficult to get everyone there on time and that they wanted a full complement public of officials "to demonstrate the collaborative nature of the program."

Townsend's policy director, Adam Gelb, said he was also told that a scheduling problem was behind the delay. But he emphasized that "the first phase of the operation is under way, and that is what is most important."

Much of Kennedy's plan builds on Townsend's Hotspot program, which places a variety of anti-crime resources in concentrated areas of violent crime, but on a far broader scale. Her office gave Kennedy $100,000 for his project.

"We are obviously excited about the announcement because it builds on our neighborhood strategy and is the next step in beefing up enforcement in communities that are hardest hit by violence and addiction," Gelb said.

Most of Kennedy's conclusions have been previously documented: A small number of criminals are responsible for most of the city's violent crime, and the fragmented nature of drug dealing makes the activity difficult to stop.

"The city has a lot of challenges," said Diana Morris, director of Baltimore's Open Society Institute, which put $350,000 into Kennedy's project. "The first challenge was to learn who was killing who and who has guns.

"The challenge was to understand the dynamics of the tremendous homicide rate that we have."

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