O'Malley's spunkiness raises expectations

First 100 days: Now that the mayor has everyone's attention, he has to deliver on promises.

March 12, 2000

IN his first 100 days, Mayor Martin O'Malley has shown he is like a bull terrier -- capable of awesome and absurd showmanship, itching for stubborn fights. These are useful qualities in a mayor who hopes to reverse Baltimore's decline and infuse it again with economic growth, optimism and vigor. His first 100 days demonstrate that such aggressiveness can produce quick results. In the long run, though, he is in for a difficult struggle. Too many city ills are immune to quick fixes.

Baltimore's horrendous homicide rate is an example.

Slayings continue at an undiminished pace, despite a thorough reorganization of the police department by Ronald L. Daniel, the new commissioner. Unless the bloodletting can be stemmed, the city is poised to have more than 300 killings for the eleventh consecutive year -- while nationwide murder indexes show continuing dramatic decline.

Mr. O'Malley does not expect any real reduction in the homicide rate until "later this year" when he hopes a new fugitive task force and detectives' better training begin to produce results.

Closing down the open-air drug markets was Councilman O'Malley's top priority when he ran for mayor last year.

He promised 10 notorious drug corners would be cleared; they have been. So far, the crackdown appears to be working.

Stepped-up policing will have limited effect as long as the city's overburdened criminal-justice system is a revolving door that gives renewed probation to violent repeat offenders and mishandles cases so that murderers are let off free.

Overhauling this system -- over which the mayor has relatively little say -- was among Mr. O'Malley's campaign promises. The new administration has made considerably headway:

A $1.4 million allocation is enabling the prosecutor to hire 29 new staff members to streamline the booking process. As of July 1, prosecutors will screen all charges before they are lodged against criminal suspects. This way, unwarranted cases can be dropped before court dockets are filled with cases that go nowhere.

The mayor may be closer to realizing his goal to have 50 percent of minor offenses disposed of within the first 24 hours of arrest. If legislators fund a $10 million plan, also scheduled for July 1 implementation, a judge would hear cases at the Central Booking and Intake Center Monday through Friday. This change, which has been opposed by the judiciary for years, could result in fewer suspects jailed before trial.

The General Assembly is considering legislation that would give police powers to issue citations for minor infractions, reducing the number of arrests for nuisance crimes.

New Deputy Police Commissioner, Edward T. Norris, a former New York City top commander, has increased the use of computer-assisted deployment of officers to areas showing spikes in criminal activity.

This progress would not have been possible without Mr. O'Malley's public demonstrations of outrage and impatience.

His much-publicized outburst against the judiciary may have been impertinent, but it focused the attention of the public and politicians on the judges' obstructionism.

It served another purpose: It showed the contrast with Mr. O'Malley's predecessor. During his 12 years in office, Kurt L. Schmoke kept his cool even when an emotional flare-up would have been warranted.

Mr. Schmoke shied away from other conflicts. For years, he toyed with the idea of governmental restructuring. In the end, though, he decided not to attempt it, perhaps fearing union opposition and dislocation.

The coming months will show whether Mr. O'Malley is made of sterner stuff. Worth watching:

Mr. O'Malley has quietly asked the courts to end the traditional pay parity between police officers and firefighters. He says police officers need to get paid more because their recruitment and retention is difficult.

The mayor's support among labor unions will be tested further if he goes ahead with government

va01 restructuring. More than 150 area business leaders are reviewing the efficiency of the city fire, housing, public works and recreation departments because of concern about the city's potential $153 million deficit.

Mr. O'Malley's political skills should not be underestimated.

The two-term City Councilman was given little chance when he joined the mayoral race June 23. He was late in starting -- plus he was a white candidate in a city where African-Americans are the majority. With a skillfully organized campaign and a well-enunciated anti-crime platform, he overcame these handicaps, beating his rivals soundly.

After he took office Dec. 7, some opponents thought he was an easy target. City Comptroller Joan Pratt publicly challenged him, Bishop Douglas Miles, of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, voiced criticism. Even now, neither may be among the mayor's cheerleaders. But Mr. O'Malley has quieted them by granting them personal courtesies or by appointing people they support.

The way Mr. O'Malley massages the egos of City Council members is amazing.

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