Mayor hopefuls offer cures for murder plague

Ideas include opening rec centers, adopting zero-tolerance policy

Leadership is key, all say

July 27, 1999|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

Diane Ambrose remembers the first thing her neighbors told her when she moved to Southwest Baltimore four years ago.

"If you hear gunshots, hit the floor," Ambrose said.

Ambrose remembered the warning last week when 13-year-old Shenea Counts was shot to death in drug war cross-fire on Bentalou Street around the corner.

The killing followed that of a Park Heights pastor, the Rev. Junior Lee Gamble, 73, in a $15 robbery a week earlier. No arrest has been made in either case.

The summer mayhem -- down somewhat from last year -- happens in the throes of the city's most competitive mayor's race in 28 years.

As candidates crisscross the city meeting with residents, the daylight killings prompt a common question:

Which of them can halt the bloodshed?

Candidate platforms differ, from adopting the zero-tolerance crime-fighting plan that helped reduce murders in cities such as New York and Cleveland to reopening closed recreation centers.

The field, however, agrees that the solution comes down to one thing: leadership.

The city police department is at odds with the state's attorney's office over bungled prosecutions. The U.S. attorney refused to attend a news conference last week to outline a new attack on crime because the city court system is in chaos.

The state's chief judge is forcing the top city judge from his post because of the court system debacle. And despite a doubling of city funds for drug treatment, state and city officials are bickering over how to best spend the money.

Meanwhile, the killing continues. The city has counted more than 300 murders each year over the past decade, including 312 last year, making it the fourth-deadliest city in the nation.

Baltimore is on a pace to fall below the mark this year, with 140 killings since January.

Mayoral candidate Carl Stokes believes he can bring area law enforcement together if elected. The 49-year-old former East Baltimore councilman and school board member pledges to take hold of the crime fight by bringing law enforcement agencies to the table.

Stokes would reinstitute the mayor's role as head of the Mayor's Coordinating Council on Criminal Justice, he said. Former Mayor William Donald Schaefer created the panel representing judges, jailers, police, prosecutors, defense attorneys and probation officials two decades ago to ensure that all were working toward keeping streets safe.

His successor, Kurt L. Schmoke, however, changed the panel into a grant-writing agency, worried that he didn't have the legal authority to tell state agencies, such as prosecutors and judges, how to do their jobs.

Stokes disagrees.

"The mayor has to get everybody in the room, close the door, sit them down and order pizza or barbecue chicken or whatever they want," Stokes said. "The mayor has to lead the city, he has the moral responsibility."

A success elsewhere

The effort has worked in cities such as Boston and Gary, Ind., which finished 1998 as the nation's "murder capital."

Murders have been cut in Gary, a Rust Belt town just east of Chicago, by 40 percent for a 12-month period ending in March, by creating task forces made up of agencies such as the FBI, state's attorney's office and police department. They jointly locate the area's most violent repeat offenders and lock them up.

In addition, Stokes pledges to reopen 18 closed city recreation centers, which have been replaced over the past few years by 27 Police Athletic League sites.

Over the past three years, mayoral candidate Martin O'Malley has been the loudest critic of the city's failure to stem murders. The 36-year-old northeast city councilman has pushed for Baltimore to adopt the zero-tolerance crime-fighting strategy embraced by cities such as New York.

The plan has five points that include giving police civil citation powers to keep lesser crimes out of courts.

The plan also calls for prosecutors to charge suspects, allowing police to get back on the streets more quickly after an arrest. Other antidotes include using minimum mandatory sentencing to keep repeat offenders behind bars and placing a judge in the central booking center for swifter justice.

The fifth plank of the strategy requires the police department to track city crime through computers and hold local district commanders accountable, O'Malley said.

Political sledgehammer

Unlike the softer-spoken Stokes, O'Malley vows to wield political sledgehammers to make the reforms a reality. Last spring, the chairman of the City Council's Finance and Taxation Committee threatened to withhold funding for State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy's office unless she began taking over the charging function from police.

Earlier this month, Jessamy's office began charging suspects five days a week, which O'Malley calls a start.

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