Zeroing in on policing styles

April 20, 2000

Q: How do you define zero tolerance policing? Why do you think it would or wouldn't work in Baltimore? What would you offer as an alternative?

Targeting the visible

William H. Murphy Jr., criminal defense lawyer and an attorney for the family of Larry Hubbard, who was shot and killed by city police last year:

Zero tolerance is zero tolerance for criminal behavior, no matter how small.

By its very nature, zero tolerance targets street crime, things that are visible. It is a program aimed at black inner-city residents. As such, it will be ineffective because it is inherently discriminatory, leads to police abuse and will foster additional community resentment against the police. It will not target crimes that are not obvious, such as drug dealing in the white community, which goes almost entirely unprosecuted except when it is discovered by accident.

As an alternative, first I would get a higher caliber of police recruit. Second, I would target serious crime, such as drug dealing in all neighborhoods, not just the black community, and crimes of violence, including gun crimes. Today's problem is that drugs are overly criminalized in the black community and almost never criminalized in the white community because the white business model of selling drugs is much more sophisticated and clandestine and requires real police work, compared to the black business model, which is unsophisticated and violent and easy to observe.

Community partnership

Gary McLhinney, president of the city's Fraternal Order of Police:

Zero tolerance is less a crime-fighting strategy and more an attitude. It's about a community taking a stand against pervasive lawlessness that has negatively affected its quality of life. It's also about that same community establishing an effective partnership with law enforcement to bring about the changes needed to restore order.

If you accept the premise that zero tolerance is an attitude, then there is no question that it can absolutely work in Baltimore. The vast majority of Baltimore's citizens are hard-working, law-abiding people who have lived entirely too long behind the walls of their own homes, unable to enjoy the basic freedoms that they've worked so hard to realize.

No one, least of all excellent citizens such as these, should be forced to live this intolerable lifestyle. I believe that the mandate issued in the overwhelming election of Mayor Martin O'Malley was proof enough that a new attitude is necessary.

Call it zero tolerance, or anything else, and you still have the same response -- the citizens of Baltimore want change and are willing to work with the Police Department to see that it occurs. The only persons who need to fear a crackdown on crime are the criminals. A little fear in the hearts and minds of those who prey on innocent people is not necessarily a bad thing.

Loss of freedom

Jean Yarborough, president of the Park Heights Networking Community Council in Northwest Baltimore:

Zero tolerance I define as a loss of freedom for residents of this city. Zero tolerance means it doesn't tolerate anything.

I don't think it would work because this city has so many diverse cultures. I think it's too aggressive.

My alternative would be police and community working together -- having the Police Department held accountable for its actions and having the community held accountable for its actions. It [has] got to be a partnership where people are working to give the police information on the drug trade and where the police are willing to act on that information immediately and not wait 20 years. The problem where I live is the drug trade has gone on too long, and it's become entrenched.

Better than nothing

Rodney Evans, owner of Monumental Liquors and president of the Monument Street Merchants Association in East Baltimore: I don't know exactly what zero tolerance means. But I know that something is better than nothing, which is what we have had for the last 12 years. I would certainly be willing to give it a try.

Target everything

Edward Burns, former Baltimore homicide detective and co-author with David Simon of "The Corner," the story of west-side addicts that is the basis of the HBO miniseries:

The view I have of zero tolerance is that you don't tolerate anything in the neighborhood -- you go after the addict, the dealer, the gunslinger.

I don't think it's possible to do it in Baltimore. The numbers are too great. I don't see how you can go after the infrastructure of the drug trade -- the touts, the runners, the small dealers.

The alternative that makes sense to me is that I would go after the ones who are violent. I would try and change the culture of the corner.

I would think very seriously about doing a lot of work with very young children. That's the place to break the culture of the corner. I'd put a greater emphasis on social programs. Unfortunately, they don't show the kinds of immediate results politicians want.

Beyond the street

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