Get-tough crime tactics face test of grim reality

August 17, 1999|By Michael Olesker

WELL, it's unanimous. All of the candidates for mayor of Baltimore have bravely declared they are against crime (even, presumably, those candidates with arrest records of their own). The question is: Does anybody with a serious chance of election have a plan that might actually work?

Patricia C. Jessamy isn't so sure. She is the beleaguered state's attorney of Baltimore who chose not to run for mayor, owing mainly to the tide of humanity that washes each day through the city's courts and threatens to drown not just her office but the city itself.

"Some of the candidates," Jessamy said yesterday, "understand the criminal justice system pretty well, and others ... well, not so well. So they tell the public what the public wants to hear."

What we do not want to hear are numbers such as these: 125 homicides in the first six months of this year, and enormous numbers of aggravated assaults, robberies, car thefts and shootings in which somebody got hit but managed not to die. Since Aug. 8, for example, 41 people have been shot in the city and survived.

And the remarkable thing is this: The crime numbers, though [See Olesker, 9b] enormous, have actually dropped. The police boast that they're slowly winning back the streets, and offer arithmetic to back up their claims.

But it's still scary out there, and entire neighborhoods feel besieged, and the mayoral candidates know it. In interviews, Carl Stokes talks of "aggressive prosecution" and "targeting repeat offenders," and Lawrence Bell intones, "Zero tolerance. Whoever is my police commissioner has to believe in zero tolerance."

Then there's Martin O'Malley, who last week released a 38-page position paper on crime, in which he recounts a City Council trip to New York to examine that city's much-publicized zero-tolerance approach, and a subsequent conversation he had with Police Commissioner Thomas Frazier.

"You don't have to tell me about zero tolerance," O'Malley recalls Frazier saying. "I know what they do in New York. They're doing the same thing I started doing here with Greenmount Avenue -- close down the open-air drug markets, drive them indoors, and you reduce the violence."

"Why did you stop?" O'Malley asked.

"Because, unlike you, I have to be a team player," O'Malley recalls Frazier saying. "When we start closing down the open-air drug markets, the judges complain that we're crowding their courts and the mayor makes me back off."

"That's not an acceptable excuse," O'Malley said.

"Tell the judges," Frazier replied in O'Malley's account. "I'm only one piece of this criminal justice system."

That was three years ago. Asked recently about zero tolerance, which involves snatching up all those committing crimes -- serious crimes, nuisance crimes, crimes against the community's quality of life, and police building a history of criminality against consistent offenders -- Frazier described officers who would have to "put themselves out of commission 10 minutes after they got into their cars. They'd be out picking up somebody for loitering, and waste half their day booking people like that."

Yesterday, Patricia Jessamy put her spin on the subject: Where would we put all these newly arrested people?

The city has, for example, its Central Booking and Intake Center, designed to smooth all bumps and backlogs in the processing of criminal suspects. It's designed to handle about 50,000 cases a year. Last year, said Jessamy, it handled more than 86,000 cases.

About 110,000 cases went through the city's district courts last year. Try to conceive of such a number in a city with fewer than 700,000 residents. Twelve years ago, said Jessamy, the circuit courts handled 4,300 felony cases. Last year, 8,600. And then there are roughly 10,000 juvenile cases a year.

"The system isn't equipped to handle so much," Jessamy said. "It is long-neglected, poorly maintained, and its procedures are outdated."

She talked of the need for early intervention with young people, of more treatment for drug offenders. Nobody disputes this, but a public fed up with rampant crime has more taste for tougher talk in this political season.

But we walk a delicate line. We want the police to be tough, but how tough? We know that criminals play the system for all it's worth, that they know the constraints placed on cops and on courts, and know the pulls and tugs of civil libertarians vs. "assertive" policing. And they manipulate those tensions.

And we ask ourselves: How firm is the line between zero tolerance and simple harassment? Where does the need for community security conflict with our notions of an open society?

These are not easy questions. And, as the mayoral candidates talk tough on crime, we ask one more thing: How much of their muscular language is actually workable?

Pub Date: 08/17/99

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