Reality check

October 04, 2002

LET'S HOPE theatrics explain Mayor Martin O'Malley's bizarre outburst in response to a Sun series that detailed how easy it is to kill and get away with it in Baltimore.

Let's hope the mayor is just trying to keep morale up in the city's beleaguered Police Department, or put the best face on his efforts to drop the murder rate.

Because if he truly believes that there's no problem with the way police are handling murder cases, that everything's fine now that he and Commissioner Edward Norris are in control, then Baltimore has bigger problems than anyone previously imagined.

Let's hope he's being petulant, rather than delusional.

In a sharply worded letter the mayor fired off to business leaders Wednesday, he characterized The Sun's "Justice Undone" series, which showed how seven of every 10 city murders go unpunished, lightly punished or unsolved, as a tardy assessment.

It's true that Baltimore police are clearing more murders than they were when Mr. O'Malley was elected. But that just means they're arresting more people and charging them with murder. It says nothing about how many people actually get convicted and sent off to do hard time.

The Sun's series looked at what happens when these "cleared" cases get to court. And it found that in far too many instances, police hadn't collected enough evidence to win convictions, or they lost evidence, or they compromised it. The result: more than 1,000 not-guilty verdicts, plea deals or dismissed charges for city murders. The killers have been left stalking the streets.

Without question, there would be little value in Mr. O'Malley publicly thrashing city police as a result of The Sun's series. But he could have acknowledged that the problems exist, that they're systemic, and that they need fixing.

He could have reassured city residents - whose family and friends and neighbors are the victims of these unpunished murders - by vowing to correct what isn't working.

More important than what Mr. O'Malley says in response to the Sun series is what he does - and what other players in the criminal justice system do - to address these problems.

Already, some have said they will act.

Police officials are seeking new training opportunities for homicide investigators, and have begun new initiatives to work more closely with prosecutors to ensure that evidence is squared away before cases come to trial.

Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy says she is reviving her push to have charging authority taken from the Police Department and placed with her prosecutors - a change that many other big cities have adopted. That would allow lawyers, rather than cops, to determine when, how and whether to charge people with murder.

Ms. Jessamy sought this change two years ago, but her efforts went nowhere, largely thanks to Mr. O'Malley, who opposes it.

The mayor would be a bigger help to everyone if he spent more time reconsidering his position than railing against the uncomfortable truth.

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