New chief's challenge

January 27, 2003

WHEN HE TOOK OFFICE more than three years ago, Mayor Martin O'Malley embarked on changing the effectiveness of Baltimore's Police Department.

Novel strategies have been introduced and real-time information now is used to bring the crime rate down, but one promised improvement is still sorely missing: relentless follow-up.

Far too often, serious criminals walk free. The reason: A lack of coordination between police and prosecutors too often prevents or undoes prosecution. And insufficient cooperation with probation officers hampers the tracking of troublemakers who are at large. It's not enough to get better at making arrests: Arrests must be followed by strenuous prosecution, particularly in cases of violence.

So now that Mayor O'Malley has chosen Kevin P. Clark, a New York police commander, as the next police commissioner, Baltimore has another opportunity to address this longstanding deficiency. Together, the mayor and the new chief must focus on ensuring relentless follow-up. They must improve the Police Department's cooperation and coordination with prosecutors.

But that can be done only if Mayor O'Malley - who sets the tone for the Police Department - State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy and U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio agree to work as a team.

In his well-publicized criticisms over the years, Mayor O'Malley has made a valid point: Baltimore's overloaded criminal justice system is seriously flawed and needs an overhaul. This message has been clearly delivered so many times it needs no repetition.

Instead, it's time to start corrective action. And that can be achieved only through trust and cooperation among the various criminal justice agencies.

Mr. DiBiagio has already taken positive steps in that direction. And Ms. Jessamy, whose relationship with the former police commissioner and the mayor has been less than cordial, would do well to forge a new, healthier and more productive bond with the new chief.

In other ways as well, sweeping changes in state government have produced conditions for an unusual realignment in the criminal justice bureaucracies that could - and should - benefit Baltimore.

The new Maryland State Police superintendent, Edward T. Norris, is the city's former police commissioner; he wants to increase the state police presence in Baltimore. In the past, troopers usually have worked here only in emergencies.

Mary Ann Saar, who has been appointed to oversee everything from parole and probation to the prison system, has vast experience here, as does Kenneth C. Montague Jr., the juvenile service secretary nominee.

These are exciting possibilities for new collaborations, coming at a time when the city needs help and resources. Nothing underscores this need more strikingly than the fact that out of the 3,300 officers in the city force, 682 - including many commanders - are eligible to retire at short notice. Realistically, perhaps 200 are expected to leave this year. The predicted loss of expertise is daunting.

During the past three years, Baltimore's overall crime rate has decreased, but those gains could be erased as killings continue at an alarming pace.

Mayor O'Malley and his new police chief must step up a policy of cooperation with other criminal justice agencies. They must disregard jurisdictional jealousies and unite in a common mission - fighting crime and punishing criminals.

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