Popular anti-crime catch phrase worrisome

October 05, 1999|By Michael Olesker

SOME OF us still remember law and order, which was a catch phrase intended to justify veiled racism, and an excuse to minimize abusive police practices while claiming benign protection of the community. Which community? What worries some of us now is the modern phrase -- zero tolerance -- whose details sound a little too close to yesterday's law and order.

Thomas Frazier is gone, and the presumptive mayor-elect, Martin O'Malley, searches for his replacement as police commissioner of Baltimore. This one, says O'Malley, must not only clear the drug dealers off street corners but also catch every litterbug whose arrest might uncover a more predatory profile.

O'Malley preached this message across last summer's mayoral campaign, and delivered it so consistently, and struck such a powerful chord among voters, that he won the crowded Democratic primary with a stunning 52 percent of the vote.

This included roughly a third of the city's black voters, who are presumably most sensitive about code words for racism and overaggressive police tactics -- but are also most affected by the city's continuing plague of street crime, which hits hardest in African-American neighborhoods.

Their vote for O'Malley seemed a declaration of frustration. Reduce the crime, said O'Malley, and it leads to all manner of city rejuvenation: a cleanup of neighborhoods, a long night's silence instead of sirens and gunfire, plus an end to the suburban exodus, a return of middle-class families and businesses with job opportunities, and safer schools.

But, as an O'Malley administration draws nearer, concerns surface. His Republican opponent, David F. Tufaro, calls zero tolerance "a buzzword for dealing with a complicated issue." Some city ministers express concern about an O'Malley speech to police officers last week, in which he told them to get tough on crime. Some found the language inflammatory.

"I know," O'Malley was saying the other day. "I need to address [ministers'] fears. They're legitimate fears, because we know there can be police abuse. But that's not what we're going for."

He needs to make this clear. In the final days of the campaign, anti-O'Malley literature surfaced with the famous photograph of Los Angeles police beating Rodney King. "Are you ready for zero tolerance?" the fliers asked.

That's just a hint of possibilities to come. Some will complain justifiably of police abuse, and some will complain because it's politically convenient. That's the nature of the game -- particularly when the game now has a specific, controversial name attached to it.

In New York, which is the great zero-tolerance role model, they've cut street crime dramatically but also produced accusations of the most repugnant police brutality. Police officers are like all other human beings: They'll combine strength with whatever they think they can get away with. The danger is when a phrase -- zero tolerance, or law and order -- becomes a convenient excuse for abuse.

There is nothing in O'Malley's history that hints of tolerating such behavior. He's been critical of police abuses. He wrote a 39-page booklet this summer -- "Restoring Public Safety" -- which contains no code language, no veiled signals to wayward police.

But there's a history in this country. It includes frustrated and well-intended cops who believe they've been restrained from doing their jobs, and are furious about it. But it's also a history that includes harassment of minority men who aren't necessarily guilty of anything, and racial profiling, and the danger of chipping away civil liberties. Typically, this bothers no one as long as it happens in someone else's neighborhood.

O'Malley knows this, too. He calls the latest zero-tolerance concerns "the hangover from certain inflammatory tactics" used during the campaign. He means the Rodney King literature. He insists police abuses will not be tolerated here.

When he spoke to members of the Fraternal Order of Police last week, says O'Malley, "I could have turned it into a pep rally. But I didn't. I talked about police misconduct. I said, 'Brutal policing and effective policing are not the same thing.'"

In New York, where zero tolerance has led to dramatic drops in crime, the distinction between brutal and effective is not always clear. But, over the weekend, the Daily News released new poll figures on crime.

Six months ago, 34 percent agreed with the statement, "On balance, I think Mayor [Rudy] Guiliani's [zero-tolerance] crime policies are necessary to make the city safer." Today, 54 percent agree.

Six months ago, 57 percent said the crime policies "interfere with rights of innocent people." Today, 37 percent agree.

One lingering anxiety: Do these respondents agree, or are they simply willing to pay that price in exchange for what feels like a safer city? Sometimes, life is a difficult trade-off.

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