A new day for Park Heights?

Bold promise: A community's hope, police resolve and social science deploy against gun violence

Getting away with MURDER

March 09, 2000

THE ACADEMIC with the shoulder-length brown hair stood before several hundred policemen, prosecutors and politicians this week and made a dramatic pronouncement.

Baltimore, he said, is going to be a very different place in a year.

David M. Kennedy, the criminologist from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, said focused, newly energized law enforcement agencies and the resources of the Park Heights neighborhood will have "an extraordinary impact on a problem that just a little while ago we had given up on."

Even some criminals will cooperate, he predicted.

Mr. Kennedy was the keynote speaker at yet another anti-crime summit, this one convened by Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend to review progress since a 1995 gathering of police, prosecutors and politicians. Though the lieutenant governor's tone seemed overly celebratory, her call for a comprehensive campaign against gun violence seems to be gathering force.

The star of the conclave was another Kennedy, no relation to the lieutenant governor. Credited with a plan that sharply reduced homicides and gang violence in Boston and Minneapolis, Mr. Kennedy has been at work in Baltimore for 18 months.

His approach starts with the perpetrators, many of whom now exist in a database that may provide the missing handle on Baltimore's 3,000-to-4,000 chronic bad guys.

In Park Heights, where the sound of gunshots has been commonplace, a core group of 27 offenders were warned recently: continue to use guns and you will be hunted down with the ferocity once reserved for cop killers.

Progress, Mr. Kennedy said, will include cooperation of the offenders -- young men who have a profound self-interest in conforming to the new reality: "If you talk to street offenders," he said, "the main thing they are is scared. They are at enormous risk. They die a lot. They get shot a lot. Their friends get killed..."

For some wary offenders, the threat of long jail sentences -- when made believable on the streets -- can provide an honorable way out of the criminal life.

Operation Safe Neighborhoods, as the Kennedy plan is called, can point to a recent prosecution in which one defendant was sentenced to 18 years in prison for possession of a single dose of heroin. More of these mercy-free prosecutions are coming.

"It's not a new initiative," Assistant State's Attorney Kim Morton told the conferees, "its a new day."

An entire city, held hostage in mind and body for so long, may dare to hope she is right.

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