Stop selfish soap opera and unite to fight crime

January 22, 2002|By Raymond Daniel Burke

WHEN MARK Twain was asked to comment on the death of a prominent member of New York's Tammany Hall, he remarked that he would not be attending the funeral but would send a nice note saying how much he approved of it.

I am beginning to feel that way about the public officials responsible for the administration of criminal justice in Baltimore.

Day after day, we seem to be treated to another episode in the continuing soap opera that is the fractured relationship among City Hall, the city state's attorney and the new U.S. attorney.

Apparently, the principal players do not get along well, probably do not like each other and certainly have conflicting ideas about their roles in confronting the dark cloud of crime and recidivism that embarrassingly hangs over Baltimore like an unwanted relative.

With a city drowning in an endless cycle of violence and death occasioned by the drug trade, a mayor was elected with the announced first priority of making a dent in this morass.

His program has taken the form of a significant renovation of the police and their procedures as well as attempts to reform the overwhelmed court process.

Some of these efforts have been successful, some have promise and others may need revision. But regardless, there will not be significant improvement without the cooperation, participation and contribution of all of those charged with battling crime. It is abundantly clear that that is not happening.

The latest public manifestation of our dysfunctional family of crime fighters occurred in Annapolis Jan. 15. That's when Mayor Martin O'Malley and State's Attorney Patricia Jessamy appeared before a legislative committee to discuss the early disposition court, a program favored by the mayor that is intended to promptly rid the system of minor offenses.

Mr. O'Malley offered promising statistics but questioned the effectiveness of the prosecutorial efforts.

Ms. Jessamy dismissed the validity of the mayor's statistics and declared the program a failure.

One can imagine the palpable roar of destruction as a spontaneous chasm figuratively tore its way down the center of the committee room floor, leaving the combatants on opposite sides of a huge crater.

I suppose it is the nature of politicians to grovel in grandstanding, much the way a pig wallows in mud; they are instinctively driven to it no matter how ridiculous it appears.

Ms. Jessamy, for example, rarely holds news conferences, but she held one recently so that she could criticize the police for failures to appear in court. The department fired back its own dissatisfaction with the notification process of the State's Attorney's Office. Gee, that sure makes me feel a lot safer.

The point is that issues like this surely arise, but they are precisely the kinds of things that the participants should be working out among themselves in the normal course of performing their sworn duties, not airing in a public relations battle of one-upmanship. Of course, such cooperation seems highly unlikely in light of Ms. Jessamy's decision to no longer even attend meetings of the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council.

For his part, newly appointed U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio came into office announcing a de-emphasis on the prosecution of local gun crimes. He has bigger fish to fry, what with terrorism and all. His busy schedule also precludes his attendance at meetings of the coordinating council. Well, I imagine there are many local citizens hiding in their homes from stray bullets who feel plenty terrorized. I also would expect that the abilities that brought Mr. DiBiagio to his current position might be of some positive use in a forum like the coordinating council.

If I could offer a suggestion to these feuding parties, on behalf of the public they should be mindful they are supposed to serve, it would be this: It is not about you. It is, in fact, about something far larger and more fundamentally significant than your respective careers. It is about the important function of ensuring that people can go to work and school and build their communities in safety. That's what makes society, especially a free society, possible.

You hired on to do a difficult job, so please do it. Bite your tongue and hold your nose, if you must, but please do the job. You need to be pooling your talents, not advancing an agenda. Positive disagreement and debate should be used to foster consensus and enlightenment, not produce winners and losers.

Shattered neighborhoods and lost lives are a testament to both the difficulty and the enormous importance of the task at hand. Bickering simply will not do. Enough already.

Raymond Daniel Burke, a Baltimore native, is a partner in a downtown law firm.

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