Baltimore's violence prompts no action

Callousness: Bills are killed in Annapolis that would have given anti-crime council legal muscle.

March 17, 2001

BALTIMORE buries another police officer killed in the line of duty today. There will be tears, flowers and eulogies for Agent Michael J. Cowdery Jr., who was gunned down Monday on the city's northeast side.

But will there soon be relief from the violence that took his life? Not if the Maryland General Assembly has anything to do with it.

The legislature buried a crucial piece of legislation this week that would have given the city more muscle in fighting violence.

Baltimore's appalling bloodshed has simply failed to move the state's elected officials. They say they care and want to help. When will they do something?

Their lack of action is devastating news for the city, where the number of homicides has again shot up in recent months.

The legislation that got quashed would have finally given the Baltimore City Criminal Justice Coordinating Council a legal basis for operating, and some authority to enforce the reforms its members dream up.

Without such authorization, the 2-year-old group will "continue to operate without any true legitimacy as an ad hoc, voluntary body," said its coordinator, John Henry Lewin.

What a shame.

The council was established in 1999 to fix a system that was so badly broken that even accused killers were freed on technicalities.

Through the council's prompting, the worst bureaucratic bottlenecks have been eliminated. But the overall criminal-justice machinery still needs an urgent overhaul -- and the council has no backing or authority to demand those kinds of changes.

Lawmakers in other parts of Maryland voted down Baltimore-area legislators' bills to give a state stamp of approval for a criminal coordinating agency in the city. Those outsiders questioned the need for such approval since similar cooperative bodies exist elsewhere on a strictly voluntary basis.

Their reasoning strangely ignores the uniqueness of the city's situation, and the chronic crime and drug problems that threaten the city's future.

The uncaring legislators are not the only ones to blame, however.

Why wasn't Gov. Parris N. Glendening campaigning for the council? Or Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who has the criminal justice portfolio?

And where was Maryland's chief judge, Robert M. Bell? His passivity is particularly galling, given his loud and persistent excuse-making for the system. It's unforgivable because he has repeatedly said the council is the proper forum to address shortcomings of the criminal-justice machinery. If he really believed that were true, shouldn't he have been in the forefront of efforts to get this bill passed?

On this day, when Agent Cowdery is given a hero's farewell, his sacrifice should mobilize all of us into a crusade against crime and violence. That's why public officials' callousness toward this issue is so shocking and shameful -- and an unfitting epitaph.

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