City's anti-terror focus raises questions

November 05, 2001|By Jeffrey Ian Ross

TRUE, BALTIMORE has a number of high-profile potential terrorist targets - chemical plants, water treatment facilities, skyscrapers, tourist attractions, stadiums.

Its role as a transportation hub and its proximity to Washington clearly make Baltimore vulnerable. But are the public warnings about "credible threats" doing more to frighten residents and enhance the careers of our municipal leaders than reassure citizens that the city is preparing to defend against terrorist attacks?

In times of crisis and uncertainty, we turn to our leaders for guidance and reassurance. This is what happened immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks. President George W. Bush and New York Mayor Rudolph Guiliani gave Americans and New Yorkers, respectively, the impression that they were in control and looking out for us.

Perhaps because of the experience gained by the August derailment of a train containing toxic chemicals in downtown Baltimore, the city is taking the potential for terrorism more seriously.

But this is not a new threat, and doesn't Baltimore already have an emergency preparedness plan? What's wrong with it? And the people in place to carry it out? Without much public comment, Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris asked a former New York colleague, Louis Anemone, to develop an "anti-terror contingency plan," a move regarded by some as self-serving.

Although Mr. Anemone's tenure was brief and he has been replaced by retired FBI criminal intelligence chief Richard Hunt, once again, why do we need an outsider to do this sort of thing?

Enter Mayor Martin O'Malley, who has vowed to make Baltimore a "national model for counterterrorism." Most of what he has suggested is very obvious and basic. And no one is quite sure why he wants to commit resources to this effort.

Experts quickly note that Baltimore's citizens are in greater danger of dying of traffic accidents, heart attacks, cancer or homicide than being victims of terrorism. Is Mr. O'Malley acting to reassure the public? Or heighten his profile? Perhaps his "national model" is a vehicle to secure additional federal funds to help support the enormous drain public safety will present to his budget at a time when the city faces shortfalls.

When the terrorists hit, many Baltimore police officers worked 12-hour shifts. They were dispatched in their personal cars, without radios. Because of the terrorist threat, Baltimore's police are stretched thin and patrol cars are taken out of service, creating safety problems for officers.

Making Baltimore a national model for counterterrorism might prompt the federal government to finally take seriously the hard work of Baltimore's police and its other public safety agencies when conducting its anti-terrorism investigations.

But a more cynical political view puts the mayor's high profile in a different light. Mr. O'Malley wants to be seen as a national player and thrived in the limelight last year when the Ravens' performance drew attention to Baltimore. Mr. O'Malley's political ambitions, ostensibly a shot at being Maryland's next governor, require such opportunities.

In the meantime, the pace of Baltimore's homicides has quickened.

Mr. O'Malley ran on a promise to lower the crime rate. Focusing on terrorism in news conferences keeps the lack of progress on the city's other problems from gaining the attention it warrants. We may also find the morale among the Baltimore police start to slide again.

Jeffrey Ian Ross is an assistant professor, Division of Criminology, Criminal Justice and Social Policy, and a fellow, Center for Comparative and International Law, at the University of Baltimore. His most recent book is Making News of Police Violence (Praeger, 2000).

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