The costly war on crime, terrorism

Preparedness: It carries a high price tag that Baltimoreans must be ready to pay.

October 26, 2001

IN THE PAST FEW weeks, Baltimore police have responded to calls about:

A man who was seen "videotaping the entrance and exits, as well as the exhaust system" of a synagogue.

A locksmith's van that was so suspicious, it could only hide a terrorist, according to the complainant.

A strange man seen photographing a residence.

None of these reports had anything to do with terrorism.

But since Sept. 11, Baltimore has been on edge. Anxious people turn to their local government for protection.

Martin O'Malley, who ran for mayor on a crime suppression platform, now finds himself struggling against the threat of terrorism as well.

The two-front war is proving to be immensely expensive. In addition to routine crime-fighting patrols and investigations, the Police Department has suddenly been saddled with inspecting suspicious objects and keeping an eye on 70 "vulnerable points" around the city, from the water system to interstate highway bridges to stadiums.

So far, these anti-terrorism duties have not stunted the crime-fighting effort.

Despite a troubling spike this month, the homicide tally continues to go down. As of 12:01 a.m. yesterday, the city had recorded 22 fewer homicides than the 224 at this time last year.

Overall violent crime also keeps dropping. "A decline in violent crime is accelerating, not slowing," the mayor wrote in a letter to the business community this week.

Despite the recent police academy graduation of 100 new officers, the city force is operating at its limits. It expects to burn $500,000 in additional overtime this month and a like amount next month. The only reason no one seems overly worried is that the city is still in the early months of its budget year, when optimism reigns and flexibility is possible.

But budget officials are quietly praying that blizzards will bypass Baltimore during the approaching winter.

In the long run, though, the specter of terrorism has saddled the city with enormous costs.

This was Mayor O'Malley's message yesterday in Washington, where he testified before a congressional committee.

He estimated that the city had spent $2.7 million since Sept. 11 to provide additional security. He projected that the city will have to shell out $9.1 million more in personnel costs and $5 million in capital and equipment expenses by next July.

That's just the beginning, he warned.

The city has to spend $28 million next year just to secure the water and wastewater system, which serves the entire metropolitan region. The bulk of that money will go to converting the water treatment facilities from chlorine to bleach, which the mayor describes as a safer and less volatile chemical.

"I'm not complaining," the mayor insisted, suggesting that the federal government create a Homeland Defense Block Grant program to help defray the costs.

Some federal aid clearly will be needed.

But if this nation indeed is embarking on a long war against terrorism, the private sector and citizens will have to do their share. Railroad companies and other transporters must guard their sensitive installations and hazardous cargo. Taxpayers will have to overcome paranoia and get prepared for higher bills that reflect the costs of added security.

This is part of the new reality in the aftermath of Sept. 11.

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