O'Malley takes his message to Britain

Mayor's `can-do' approach of city anti-crime program sells a similar Blair effort

October 15, 2003|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON - When members of Prime Minister Tony Blair's administration looked around for someone to help sell a new government program to reduce drug crimes and the anti-social behavior that has become a growing concern in Britain, they took a long look across the ocean at Baltimore.

They liked the blend of frank talk and tenacious optimism of the city's mayor, Martin O'Malley, plus the drop in violent crime during his tenure.

Yesterday, at the invitation of British Home Secretary David Blunkett, O'Malley spoke at a conference hall in the shadow of Big Ben, imploring about 1,000 local politicians, drug-abuse counselors, nurses, teachers and other front-line workers to follow Baltimore's lead by increasing drug treatment while getting tough with criminals.

O'Malley picked up a few ideas, too, and said after his speech that he would make another push for more of the closed-circuit television cameras installed around Baltimore to further reduce crime.

O'Malley spoke of his city like a father embarrassed by a son's past mistakes but proud of his recent accomplishments and hopeful about his future.

Standing on a green-lit stage with the logo from his "Believe" campaign projected on a large screen behind him, the mayor told the conference that he wanted to be honest, that problems in Baltimore persist. He spoke of the funerals for Baltimore police officers "assassinated" by drug dealers and of the deaths of Carnell and Angela Dawson and their five children, murdered by drug dealers who set fire to their house.

But he also spoke of a working city with a rich history and highlighted the city's more recent successes, including a decline in drug-related hospital visits and a sharp drop in violent crime.

Mostly, though, his message was one he has delivered frequently in Baltimore, pushing the need for persistence and a willingness to fight, of taking the important first step of convincing people most affected by crime that progress is possible.

"By the time we got to the '90s, we were flat on our back," said O'Malley, describing the toll that heroin and crack cocaine had taken on the city. "We talked about our fears, crime, policing. At the end of the day, we decided that regardless of race or wealth, our strength was found in our neighborhoods."

For many Americans, the mention of Britain prompts images of the queen and Buckingham Palace, of gardeners and green countryside, and police without guns. But particularly in bigger cities, such as London and Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool, deep pockets of poverty exist, with all its associated problems, including violent crime, drug abuse and theft.

In Britain, such issues are tackled at the national level, and so, yesterday, the prime minister sat on a panel discussion before O'Malley's speech talking about plans to clamp down on everybody from drug dealers to graffiti artists and of the need to get abandoned cars off the streets.

Blair's plan, dubbed "Together," mirrors O'Malley's carrot-and-stick approach to crime reduction, offering more aid for people addicted to drugs but less tolerance for those who fail to take the helping hand.

O'Malley said the cornerstone of his strategy for reducing drug and nuisance crimes was a public relations campaign to persuade people to shed expectations of failure and instead have faith that success is in reach.

"The rationale behind the Believe campaign was this: One of the biggest problems we had to confront was ... our own cynicism," he said. "We had to attack the cynicism that had become part of the political culture in our city."

O'Malley was the only American speaking at the conference, and afterward he appeared on BBC news programs and was to speak to leading members of Parliament. His appearance here followed an April trip to Baltimore by the home secretary, who is in charge of anti-crime efforts in Britain.

"The dynamism he has shown, the commitment he has shown, to turning around his city is something we should learn from," Blunkett said.

FBI statistics back up O'Malley's message that Baltimore has made strides in reducing crime - and his assessment that the city still has a long way to go. Since 1999, Baltimore has led major U.S. cities in crime reduction, but still ranks No. 2 in violent crime, behind Detroit.

The causes of crime are complex, so pinpointing reasons for increases and decreases is not easy. What has been shown in numerous studies, though, is that increased access to drug treatment has coincided with reductions in crime, and such has been the case in Baltimore.

During O'Malley's tenure, the number of people being treated for drug abuse increased 60 percent while violent crime decreased by 26 percent.

The mayor's ability to grab a crowd with his speeches was not left in Maryland. When he described in great detail the scene of a young girl dead on a Baltimore street, not so much as a clearing throat was heard as the audience sat silently. His ovation at the end of the speech was the longest of the day, including that for the prime minister.

Afterward, O'Malley said he felt gratified, maybe even relieved, that others are following his formula for crime reduction.

"What I'm learning and becoming more and more convinced of is that Baltimore really is on the right track," he said. "We have such a pathological modesty for our own city that often we don't give ourselves credit when we do something right."

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