Business leaders back mayor's watchdog plan

Anti-drug campaign pep talk inspires support to monitor gun cases

July 26, 2002|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

Mayor Martin O'Malley's plan for court watchdogs to monitor gun cases has a seat-of-the-pants quality you'd expect from a brash, young politician: unorthodox and aggressive, announced to a throng of media just two hours after the chance placement of newspaper articles put the idea in his head.

But in some ways, O'Malley has been slowly laying the foundation for this kind of move throughout his 2 1/2 years in office, as he has tried to build community coalitions to help put his ideas into action. A week earlier, he rallied the business community to take a more active role in combating the city's drug problem.

Galvanized by that meeting, business leaders not only pledged to back O'Malley's plan to monitor gun cases, but did so with few details and at a moment's notice. About 20 executives rushed to City Hall to help announce the plan at 10 a.m. Wednesday - about 30 to 60 minutes after the mayor first pitched it to them in a flurry of morning phone calls.

"I don't know what it is. I'm not so sure exactly what we're supposed to do," said Donald P. Hutchinson, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee, a business group. "But I do think there will be a positive response" once the initiative is fleshed out.

O'Malley has not always been able to count on that kind of snap-to-itness among business leaders. The mayor had been frustrated for months with the business community's lack of response to the anti-drug campaign, Baltimore Believe.

However, local executives say they've recently grasped a sense of urgency and are assuming some responsibility to cure the city's problems - in part because of the Believe campaign, which most of them didn't understand until O'Malley gave them an impassioned explanation a week ago.

"I think there's some growing confidence that there's more soldiers in the game here and people are stepping up," said Michael Cryor, an executive who heads a business consulting firm and is co-chairman of the Believe campaign.

The criminal court watchdog group O'Malley wants formed would send observers into courtrooms to monitor gun cases and write reports on whether judges and prosecutors are following state sentencing guidelines. By doing so, the mayor hopes to pressure courts to get tough on violent offenders.

The idea for the watchdog group came to O'Malley about 8 a.m. Wednesday morning, he said, when he noticed two stories placed side-by-side in that day's Sun.

One reported the fatal drive-by shooting of a 13-year-old boy in West Baltimore. The other described a plan by the Downtown Partnership business group to create a "court watch" program to observe and testify in nuisance-crime cases.

Struck by the juxtaposition, O'Malley asked himself: If businesses can keep tabs on the nuisance crimes impairing the west side's rebirth, why not monitor the violent cases that threaten the city's very survival?

He and his staff started working the phones and two hours later, O'Malley was holding a news conference on the plan. At his side were about 20 business leaders who had hastily canceled appointments and skipped meetings to be there, saying the Believe pep talk O'Malley had delivered a week earlier was part of the reason they were so quick to sign on.

"I thought business leaders - black and white - were missing the whole [Believe] message," O'Malley said. "It was a point of frustration for me in these last several months. And now I feel like we have momentum again. I feel like I have much deeper commitment from them now."

The Believe effort has had a mixed record that may say something about the power and limits of O'Malley's bully pulpit.

The $4 million promotional campaign, paid for by private donations of funding and ad time and space, urged everyone in the city - black and white, rich and poor, addicted and clean - to take action of some sort to fight drugs and related violent crime. The ads began in April and ended Sunday, but the program is continuing.

There have been some clear successes. The number of drug addicts seeking treatment in the city doubled in May, more than tripled in June and is on track to quadruple this month, Believe officials said. Nearly 400 people dialed the Believe hot line for information about becoming city police officers. Calls to volunteer with the Maryland Mentoring Partnership and Big Brothers/Big Sisters have tripled.

But even as Baltimore Believe specifically exhorted residents to call police with information about crime, when Tevin Montrel Davis, 10, was shot and wounded while sitting in front of his West Baltimore home last week, as many as 40 potential witnesses said they were unable to help detectives. Days later, Perry Spain - a neighbor of Tevin and many who were questioned - was arrested.

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