Mayor Martin O'Malley called the family killed in an East Baltimore arson last month "martyrs" and asked residents, businesses and social leaders yesterday to redouble efforts to support social and law enforcement programs he thinks will help his struggling city.
"It's time to give the children of this city a reason to believe," O'Malley said during a news conference at City Hall. "Our goal is to make Baltimore the safest big city in America."
Last month, police began a major push to keep the number of city homicides below the 256 that occurred last year. Officers targeted drug areas, stopped more motorists and increased street interviews, all at a significant cost in overtime. But their effort brought the number of homicides in line with last year's rate as O'Malley pushed to continue the drop in violent crime. Also, more than 150 guns were confiscated, the mayor said.
Other efforts mentioned include youth programs such as "adopt-a-school" and opening recreation centers Friday evenings, finding more drug treatment for city addicts, and placing a higher priority on 911 calls to police that report open drug dealing. O'Malley said he has heard many complain that police are not aggressive in answering such calls.
Many of the programs O'Malley mentioned are part of his "Believe" campaign aimed at instilling a sense of hope in the future. During the past month, he has often noted Angela and Carnell Dawson's stand against drug dealing in their neighborhood as exemplifying the best principles of the campaign.
"The Baltimore Believe campaign unfortunately now has martyrs in the Dawson family," he said. "It is because of the courage of families like the Dawsons that Baltimore has for three years in a row led the nation in the reduction of violent crime."
In the early morning of Oct. 13, as the Dawsons slept, someone kicked in their door, poured gasoline throughout the first floor, then set the house ablaze. Angela Maria Dawson and five of her children died in the blaze that burned for nearly an hour before being put out by fire crews. Carnell Dawson Sr. died a week later of injuries suffered during the fire and from a jump from the burning home's second floor. Darrell Brooks, 21, a neighbor, was arrested within hours and charged with multiple counts of first-degree murder.
Since the fire, the city has thrown resources into the Oliver community, said O'Malley. The Department of Public Works rushed to clear 26 longstanding service requests. Fifty residential drug treatment and methadone slots were made available. The Department of Housing and Community Development set aside $3 million to demolish or renovate 35 properties. Two mostly vacant blocks in the area -- the 1500 block of Bethel St. and the 1600 block of Hoffman St. -- will be torn down once city officials finish negotiations with the few remaining residents.
Also, discussions have been held about what to do with 1401 E. Preston St., the three-story rowhouse where the Dawsons lived. Heavily damaged by the fire, the home has been boarded up and condemned. Possible alternatives include renovating the property as a residence, turning it into a community center, or demolishing it and turning the land into a community park. The city is negotiating with the owner of the building, which in 1998 had an assessed value of $10,200 for house and land.
The mayor hinted at other programs being developed, such as a "war room" at the city jail. Staffed by probation officers, police and veteran prosecutors, the office would be used to identify serious criminals who might be on parole or probation for a major crime but have been arrested for a minor crime. The idea would be to do whatever necessary to get them off the streets for significant periods.
Margaret T. Burns, spokeswoman for the state's attorney's office, said that of the 21,000 people on parole or probation in the city, 666 have not reported to their officers. About 2,800 violations are pending.
O'Malley also said the city is working with the federal government to use portable, high-intensity lights to discourage drug dealing in certain areas.
"The Dawson tragedy has surely smacked us into a new consciousness about the enormity of the problem," he said. "Whatever we've done, we need to do more."