Get rid of bad cops but focus on big picture

This Just In...

October 20, 1999|By DAN RODRICKS

YEAH, I KNOW: The legendary Johnnie Cochran came to Baltimore, and now he, Billy Murphy and Dwight Pettit are teaming up to represent the family of the late Lawrence "Fat Herb" Hubbard, shot in the back of the head by a cop and memorialized as a martyr. Big story. A racial and political bonfire. "Mr. Cochran," Murphy said, "is here to heal."

Maybe Mr. Cochran would like to volunteer at Maryland Shock Trauma Center.

At least 15 people were shot, one fatally, over the weekend in the city that bleeds. At least seven shootings occurred and, in one instance Saturday night, a man with a handgun fired two shots at a police officer in the Southwestern District.

That happened about 20 minutes after 10, in the 400 block of S. Pulaski St. The block was notoriously hot with drugs a year ago. In July of last year, police raided eight rowhouses -- only 14 are in the block -- and shut down business.

New and better tenants moved into the area. Saturday night, when a woman tried to sell drugs to one of them, she was repulsed and told to leave the steps of a rowhouse in the middle of the block.

The woman didn't like being dissed. She returned later with two men. Someone stood in front of the rowhouse and fired several shots into it, shattering glass and wounding three people inside. Officer Vickie Mengel, 29 and on the force three years, saw this, got out of her cruiser, drew her gun and ordered the person to cease fire and drop to the sidewalk.

The suspect started to do as Mengel instructed. Halfway to the ground, the handgun was handed to one of the men. The man shot twice at Mengel and fled with the others. Mengel did not return fire, her commander said yesterday, because she was concerned about hitting a bystander. She got back in her cruiser, radioed for help and set off to search for the three. Mengel caught a woman in the next block; she's charged with attempted murder. Police are looking for the two males. Mengel is back on duty.

You see how it goes out there.

I only mention this because, in the flammable climate of the season, brought on by the ugly and suspicious death of Hubbard, you get the feeling, from the news conferences and the rhetoric, that the police have become the main problem in Baltimore.

"There is a long, terrible history of police brutality in this town," Billy Murphy offered, in his healing way, the other day.

Do we dare mention that there's also been long, terrible history of drug commerce and killings that has had a far more devastating effect on the residents of Baltimore? It has been a decade since the city recorded fewer than 300 homicides in a year. The prisons are full of young men who've wasted their lives doing and selling drugs. Thousands of families have been scarred. Whole city blocks have been ruined.

The only people I know who've tried to do anything about it are federal agents and cops, some addictions counselors and a few community activists brave enough to stand up and fight. Mostly it's been cops. Cops fought the drug war. Some of them died in action. Remember Marty Ward?

Hubbard's death brings those of us who live in Baltimore and who care about it -- as distinct from those who don't and merely enjoy knocking it on talk radio -- to a confluence of forces and feelings where the footing is treacherous. All sorts of currents run through this.

You want your taxes to pay the salaries of good, smart cops who will venture into dangerous neighborhoods to make them safe for decent people. You want to support cops as they do this. You want them to feel that support. You probably have an aversion to second-guessing the actions of cops. It's a natural aversion. Cops are out in the night, taking risks, immersed in the world of drugs and guns. They do the things for which the rest of us have no stomach. They're out there, we're not.

But that doesn't give them license to beat and to kill.

You can't tolerate racism or brutality among police.

And you can't dismiss the idea that too many residents have felt victimized by the cops in this town. It's easy to think of Billy Murphy, for instance, as a man who exaggerates and inflames racial tensions when he speaks, especially when he sees his bread about to be buttered. But unless you've ever been stopped for driving while black, or loitering while black, or cursed while black, or whatever while black, then I'd recommend taking a long, slow look at all the facts -- about the Hubbard case, or any case like it -- before jumping to a conclusion.

White people are quick to anger when they hear black people cry racism, especially when it's used to attack cops or defend criminals. But I wonder how many of those same whites have ever been treated shabbily by a cop, or roughed up by one.

Let me step out of the crosscurrents now and get to the main stem of my thought.

Fifteen people were shot over the weekend, one of them fatally, in Baltimore. And a good cop named Vickie Mengel escaped a couple of bullets Saturday night.

So, yeah, get the bad cops, get them out. But don't let the flames of a bonfire take your eyes off the big picture.

Baltimore is still bleeding, friends. We have a long, long way to go together.

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