The links among snow, car theft and homicide

February 01, 2000|By MICHAEL OLESKER

AND SO, as we dig ourselves out from another round of that famous global warming we keep hearing so much about, our thoughts turn lightly to matters of parking spaces: how to get one, how to keep one, and how to pray for the future of your car if you pick the wrong one.

In my neighborhood in the city of Baltimore, for example, the snow brings us many interesting choices. We may park on our normal pad behind the house, by attempting to navigate through the alley leading to it. Or we may roll the dice with the lives of our cars, and park in front of the house.

If we park behind the house, we run the risk of not getting out until spring. When the snow falls, it piles up in the alley, and not a city plow has been seen there since the last D'Alesandro administration. So scratch that idea.

This leaves us with the main street out front, where the city plows arrive and thus allow us to drive about like any other citizens. But unwanted predators also arrive -- the kind we are always reading about in our daily newspaper.

One time it snowed and my wife and I parked our cars in front of the house. Both cars were broken into, and all contents removed. Another time, my car was stolen when I parked out front. When I awoke in the morning, where there had once been my car, there was now only a thing best described as Absence of Car, with a mound of snow around it.

So there you have just one family's dilemma: Do we want cars that cannot be moved until spring, or cars that are involuntarily removed at the first sign of availability? I ask this question not only because the snow fell again Sunday, covering the snow of the previous week, but also because I live in this city where we make so much of the famous murder rate that we perhaps overlook less dramatic acts committed by the predatory class.

In Sunday's Sun, for example, reporter Caitlin Francke refers us to Harvard criminologist David Kennedy's 18-month analysis of city homicides. Violent crime, Kennedy said, is concentrated among a relatively small number of people.

This is good news, followed by bad: Homicide suspects in Baltimore had on average been arrested more than nine previous times, and each victim -- each victim! -- had been arrested on average more than eight previous times.

What kinds of crimes had they committed? Every kind. Crimes involving vulnerable cars, for example, such as those in any metro area neighborhood. Crimes against vulnerable homes, for example. (In countless neighborhoods, the sound of the burglar alarm is the musical soundtrack of our lives.)

And, behind 60 percent of the city's homicides, Kennedy said, are criminals tied to the city's drug trade.

What all this means is relatively clear, and known for quite some time: The story of Baltimore is a tale of two cities. There are the vast numbers who work at honest jobs each day, and the small minority that self-destructs but makes hostages of fearful people who bolt their doors and turn on alarms, and wonder if their parked cars will survive the mere falling of snowflakes.

"The vast majority of our shooting cases involved one bad boy shooting another," State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy told Francke. "The culture is built on street vengeance and retaliation. There are some innocent victims, but they are not the vast majority, not by any stretch of the imagination."

In large measure, we know who the bad guys are -- because they have a history. As Francke points out, though, knowing it and doing something are completely different. The state's tough-gun charges, for example -- minimum five-year sentences for gun crimes -- are routinely sloughed off.

Prosecutors cut sentencing deals to get guilty pleas. Many cases are abandoned, often because the state's attorney's office is so overwhelmed by the sheer volume of cases that it has to ignore some to handle others.

Does everyone get the circular reasoning here? We have too many gun cases. Therefore, we can't prosecute a lot of our gun cases. Why? Because it won't allow us time to prosecute other gun cases. Thus, on the street, the word is clear: Don't worry about carrying guns, because they probably won't go after you.

In the past decade, the city lost more than 3,000 people to homicide. But the arithmetic says the majority of these killings involved people who made themselves vulnerable. Choices were made. Many of the victims chose to run with the predatory class.

That leaves the other great class of people: the hostage class. We are reminded of this now because of the innocence of falling snow. We leave our cars as hostages to the weather, and the predators, or wait until spring to dig ourselves out.

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