Justice crackdown has no room for rivalries

Joint mission: Police and prosecutors must set aside power plays to stem violence.

August 22, 1999

FIFTEEN prosecutors, law enforcement officials and community activists flanked Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke on Tuesday, pledging to jointly combat Baltimore's shockingly high homicide rate through Operation Safe Neighborhoods.

"This is the most important thing I will ever do," declared State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy.

It was a nice photo opportunity. So why is the National Institute of Justice rethinking a $2 million grant it was about to award for Baltimore?

Because Baltimore law enforcers are unable to cooperate smoothly -- despite the public smiles and backslapping.

Even after months of painstaking planning, Operation Safe Neighborhoods participants have been unable to agree on memoranda of understanding that would define their respective tasks and responsibilities.

This kind of jurisdictional jousting is inexcusable.

It is a key reason for the crisis that rocked the Baltimore criminal-justice system earlier this year. Just as their computers are unable to interface, the various bureaucracies do not communicate.

Instead, they delight in dwelling on rivals' failures. Ms. Jessamy's underfinanced and understaffed office has become a particularly handy scapegoat.

This finger-pointing and fault-seeking must stop. Baltimore's shockingly high homicide rate -- still one of America's highest, despite a 20 percent drop so far this year -- is a major reason for the continuing exodus of residents and businesses from the city. Its reduction requires that all of the agencies pull together.

The nonprofit Safe and Sound Campaign's Operation Safe Neighborhoods is the ideal vehicle to promote that cooperation. Its chief researcher, Harvard criminologist David M. Kennedy, has identified 4,000 "core criminals" responsible for half of the city's homicides.

Most of those lawbreakers congregate at open-air drug markets. The plan is to hit the most violent drug markets, arresting gun-toting "impact players" and prosecuting them to the fullest extent of state and federal laws.

This strategy has reduced gun violence and homicides in other cities, most notably Boston. It could be as successful in Baltimore if local, federal and state agencies cast their jealousies aside and act in unison.

Operation Safe Neighborhoods is such a promising strategy that it cannot be allowed to fail.

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