Payback runs from the suites to the streets

November 26, 2003|By GREGORY KANE

JAMES STOKES went to eternity Monday afternoon as Baltimore's 234th homicide victim of the year. All we know about him is the information provided in a news brief.

A man stepped from a car about 12:30 p.m. and shot Stokes in the head, according to Baltimore police. We don't know the motive. Perhaps Stokes was a victim of one of those revenge killings The Sun's Del Quentin Wilber wrote about in an article Saturday.

A group of young East Baltimore men -- one from an area called "Deaky Land" and the other a crew operating out of the Port Street area -- engaged in a string of shootings that led to three dead and four wounded. Police have a strong hunch that a fourth killing is linked to the Deaky Land/Port Street feud, which started when one guy stepped on another guy's foot.

Yes, you read that right. The dispute isn't over drug turf but on some warped notions of respect and manhood -- and a pathological need for payback -- that some young men in this city have. But their thirst for petty revenge shouldn't surprise us. We've heard this before.

Before he left his job as commissioner of Baltimore's Police Department to run the state police, Col. Ed Norris condemned a "culture of vengeance" within the agency. The unwritten rule was that you would pay back those who had slighted you in the past. Norris was a deputy commissioner in the department when Ron Daniel was commissioner. Daniel canned some command staff of his own. Norris was appalled one night to drive into the parking garage and find two officers stomping with glee on a sign with a departed commander's name on it that they had ripped from atop a parking space.

But it's not just the Police Department. Several employees of the school system have sent me e-mails and letters telling just how awful things are. They can't give their names, they write, because they fear reprisals. School officials have assured us these folks have nothing to fear, as if dozens of people who don't know one another would share a common paranoid delusion.

So from the homeys on the streets to the power brokers in the suites, the "culture of vengeance" runs rampant in Baltimore. This town has been promoted as "Charm City," but "Paybackville" would be more appropriate. For Baltimoreans, Mayor Martin O'Malley's "Believe" campaign translates into "I BELIEVE I have to watch my back."

Unfair, you say? Listen to the words of Norris, who, as a native New Yorker who moved here only a few years ago, may have a more objective view of us. Are Baltimoreans excessively vengeful?

"Yeah, I believe that," Norris said yesterday. "It's unusual how people hold grudges here, not only in the streets but politically. It's a pretty mean place."

It is, indeed. Now we know why O'Malley and the three police chiefs he appointed -- Daniel, Norris and Kevin Clark, the current commissioner -- haven't come up with a police strategy to get the number of homicides in Baltimore below 250. O'Malley did achieve some success in getting the number under 300, although it still boggles my mind about why that figure was so magical. It's as if we're saying we'll tolerate about 250 homicides, but 300 or more is unacceptable. It's to O'Malley's credit that he has since changed his goal to zero homicides -- unattainable in a town like this, but that should be our ideal.

For years, politicians and police have told us that most Baltimore homicides are linked to drugs. That's probably true, which is why those police strategies targeting street-level drug dealing and drug gangs have led to the decrease in killings we've seen so far. But how do you police things like what prompted the dispute between the Deaky Land and Port Street gangs? How do you police a mind-set that cherishes revenge above all else, especially when that mind-set is reflected in government agencies -- the school system and Police Department -- that are supposed to be above that sort of thing?

Norris had one answer.

"My philosophy of policing is to get very assertive," Norris said. "Make it very uncomfortable for people to carry their guns." During his tenure as police commissioner, Norris said, police were able to defuse a dispute between two drug gangs by getting them off the street.

"We put the pieces together," Norris said, "and figured out who the lieutenants were and who was next in line to be killed -- who was next in the food chain with these guys."

Clark indicated he would use the same strategy.

"A lot of it is pre-emptive action by the police," the new commissioner said. "This [the Deaky Land/Port Street feud] started with a party. We didn't know there was going to be a fashion show. If we did, we could have had a police presence there."

Clark also stressed that most of those killed have "serious crime records. We'd be saving them from themselves if they were in prison." That sounds like fodder for another column, but we need to ask ourselves: In a town as vindictive as this one, can we afford to have the Deaky Land and Port Street boys on our streets?

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