British official visits Baltimore to learn about policing, security

Home Secretary Blunkett seeks tips from O'Malley

April 02, 2003|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

David Blunkett, Britain's top law enforcement officer and a possible future prime minister, stood beside an ornate table during a welcoming ceremony in Baltimore's City Hall yesterday, ripping open the silver wrapping of the wrong present.

His staff had intended for him to give the gift - a pewter mug - to Mayor Martin O'Malley, who had handed Blunkett a crystal dish moments earlier.

But Blunkett, who is blind, turned the awkward moment to his advantage as he has throughout his career, rising from disability and poverty to become one of the most powerful and admired people in England.

"Here is the gift that I've already started opening for you, to make it easier for you," he said, handing O'Malley the half-opened box with torn wrapping.

Blunkett, the British Home Secretary, was in town yesterday to talk with O'Malley about homeland security tactics and policing strategies, which he heard were more progressive in Baltimore than elsewhere, according to his staff.

He flew to Washington Sunday to meet with Attorney General John Ashcroft and sign a protocol on the extradition of criminal suspects. Blunkett will visit only one other city during his four-day tour, New York, where he is heading next.

After lunching with O'Malley on salmon with apricot glaze in City Hall, they drove to a Pigtown neighborhood community center. Blunkett learned about a new program in which court officials hand out community service as a punishment for quality-of-life crimes, such as shoplifting and public urination.

`Learning experience'

"This has been a very important learning experience for me," said Blunkett. "A lot of things have clicked with me in terms of what we can do at home."

For the last two years, Blunkett has held a position in England that would be the rough equivalent of the combined jobs of U.S. Attorney General and Homeland Security director.

A member of Prime Minister Tony Blair's Cabinet, Blunkett is widely considered a contender for the prime minister's job if Blair decides not to run again, said Roland Watson, Washington bureau chief of The Times of London.

A liberal politician who once presided over what some called the "People's Republic of Sheffield," Blunkett has surprised some in his country by embracing tough, hard-line security strategies that strike some as being almost as conservative as Ashcroft's.

Blunkett said he sees no contradiction. "If you've got security and protection, and people feel that there is stability in their lives, then you can appeal to them for progressive politics, then you can get them to be sympathetic to the person who is in trouble," he said.

Dramatic life story

One reason that Blunkett, 55, is widely respected in England is because his life story is dramatic enough to be lifted from a Charles Dickens novel.

"He has an astonishing background - overcoming such adversity," said David Cameron, a Yale University professor who studies European politics.

Blunkett was born just after World War II in one of the poorest public housing complexes in Sheffield, a depressed industrial city whose grimness was portrayed in the film The Full Monty.

At the age of 4, he was taken away from home to a boarding school for the blind. When he was 12, his father suffered an agonizing death when he fell into a vat of boiling water while working at the East Midlands Gas Board.

Blunkett's family sank into poverty as the gas company refused for years to pay his family compensation for the death.

As he rose up through local politics - becoming a liberal leader of the Sheffield City Council, then winning a seat in the House of Commons - Blunkett brought his guide dog wherever he went, even into Parliament.

Because his dog, Sadie, does not travel with him on foreign trips, Blunkett was taken by the arm by O'Malley yesterday as he toured the city.

"I find it difficult and awkward, but not impossible," he said of traveling without Sadie, "and I've got good staff around me to help me."

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