Misperceptions feed zero-tolerance scare

A fact: Baltimore police arrest 2.5 times more people than New York's -- but without reducing crime.

April 09, 2000

NOTHING MORE strikingly illustrates the breakdown of law enforcement in this city than the misperception that New York police are tougher on criminals than Baltimore's.

In fact, during the past several years Baltimore officers have consistently averaged at least 2.5 times more arrests than their New York counterparts. But malfunctioning court and criminal-justice systems have undermined those efforts, undoing prosecutions and allowing everyone from petty criminals to murder suspects to get off unpunished.

The 162-page report by Mayor Martin O'Malley's New York police consultants makes no mention of this fundamental discrepancy between Baltimore's extraordinarily high arrest rate and the end result.

But the reality underscores how code words, fear-mongering and political posturing can replace facts and overtake public debate. Thus New York, because of the cowboy antics of controversial Republican Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, becomes both an example of zero-tolerance policing's efficiency and a poster child for its excesses.

Meanwhile, Baltimore's more vigorous -- but ultimately unproductive -- arrest posture gets little attention. The reason? During his 12 years at City Hall, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke bent over backwards to safeguard civil liberties. He ruled out aggressive searches and apprehensions on suspicion, regardless of how effective those tactics had proven in other cities. Yet Baltimore during his final year had four times more officer-involved shootings, proportionally, than New York, which recently grabbed headlines for its glaring examples of police excesses.

As he launches the most radical police reorganization in 34 years, Mayor Martin O'Malley's persuasiveness and salesmanship will be sorely tested.

He has to convince a dispirited and suspicious public that we can indeed win the war against crime and homicides, which for the past decade have made Baltimore one of the nation's most dangerous cities. At the same time, he must dispel unwarranted apprehension about Edward T. Norris, his nominee for police commissioner.

Because the 39-year-old Mr. Norris is a former New York City deputy commissioner, some are fearful he would introduce Giuliani-style police tactics to Baltimore. The departure of Commissioner Ronald L. Daniel -- after only 57 days on the job -- exacerbated these worries. Although he has not talked publicly about the reasons, his resignation was prompted by disagreements over the thrust and pace of the reforms recommended by Mayor O'Malley's consultants.

The Maple/Linder Group report is indeed alarming. Not because of its recommendations, but because of its harsh and detailed examination of the police department's paralysis. (The report is available on the Internet at www.baltimorecity.gov)

The report is particularly unflinching in discussing three interconnected problems: poor priorities and misallocation of resources; technological backwardness; and the lack of trust toward police.

Misallocation of officers

Last year, the city police received some 1.3 million 911 calls. More than 10 percent were false burglar alarms. A third had nothing to do with crime emergencies. Yet the badly understaffed police force consistently responded.

As a first step toward correcting this problem, Mayor O'Malley supports the idea of imposing stiff fines on alarm monitoring companies (not their subscribers) for the innumerable false alarms that sap so much police time.

Overall, the police department hopes to move away from just reacting to 911 calls. The current detail of 135 narcotics investigators (of a force of 3,274 men and women) is being doubled so it can better respond to the drug crisis. (One of every eight adults in the city is believed to be addicted to heroin or cocaine)

A warrant apprehension task force is being expanded from five to 30 officers. It will hunt down chronic offenders charged in 54,000 outstanding warrants, including nearly 250 suspects in murder or attempted-murder cases.

At the heart of the reallocation of resources is the Comstat computer process, which was credited with producing a huge drop in crime in New York in the early 1990s. Top commanders will analyze trends and respond to them before they get out of control, aided by statistical data, including pinpoint mapping of crime incidents street by street.

Beefing-up technology

A new technical response unit is being formed to create electronic eavesdropping, wiretapping and other surveillance capabilities which the police department currently lacks.

The goal is to quickly introduce such state-of-the-art resources as a photo imaging system that allows officers to search for suspects from a database that identifies criminals by description, operating method or name.

In addition to wider use of computers and video camcorders, an automatic vehicle locator system is planned. It will enable patrol supervisors to track the exact locations of all officers in the field.

Erasing distrust

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