Clark defends work of police to council

He says it's unfair to blame homicide rate on department, strategy

April 30, 2004|By Doug Donovan | Doug Donovan,SUN STAFF


An article in yesterday's editions of The Sun may have implied that Baltimore's current homicide rate was not being reduced. While the article correctly stated that the 271 homicides recorded in the city in 2003 were the most since 1999, this year's homicide total to date is 84, compared with 93 at the same time last year.

Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin P. Clark defended the performance of his officers yesterday and said blame for a stubborn homicide rate should not be entirely pinned on his department.

During a City Hall presentation of his crime-fighting strategy to the City Council, Clark said his officers have made more arrests than at any time during the past five years and that violent crime is at its lowest level since 1970.

"My officers are putting their lives at risk," said Clark, flanked by his command staff inside council chambers. "We have to look at what happens to [offenders] beyond the arrest."

Clark has made narcotics enforcement his strategy's centerpiece. He said his officers' arrests led to 525 felony narcotic indictments last year, a more than 200 percent increase over 2002. He said police have seized nearly 2,500 kilograms of drugs like cocaine, heroin, marijuana and Ecstasy, with a total $80 million street value.

"They're hurting," Clark said of drug dealers. "They're retreating."

One statistic not retreating is homicides. Last year, Clark's first year in office, the city had 271 homicides, 7 percent more than in 2002 and the most since 1999, when there were 305 killings.

"What are we doing proactively to ward off some of these murders?" Councilman Bernard C. "Jack" Young asked.

Clark said most of the city's 84 homicide victims this year had criminal records. The average number of arrests per victim, he said, was more than eight. He said 59 of those victims had been arrested for drugs and 22 had been on parole or probation.

He said the criminal justice system would have to improve its performance in securing longer sentences.

"Something's not working," he said. "On my end, it is working."

Margaret T. Burns, spokeswoman for State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy, said many arrests were being tossed because they lacked sufficient evidence to prosecute.

"Sometimes less is more," Burns said. "We want good cases we can move on."

Councilwoman Lisa Joi Stancil asked how Clark was working with the criminal justice system to increase convictions.

"How can you say your agency is effective while in the same breath you say your partners aren't doing their jobs?" Stancil asked. "If the bottom line is we have more homicides, then everyone has failed."

Clark did praise prosecutors for increasing convictions for certain crimes, like murder. "I'm asking for help," Clark said. "I'm not pointing fingers."

Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr., who requested the hearing, worried that Clark's strategy to bolster the organized crime division was diminishing the district patrol ranks.

Clark bristled at the criticism and said he has increased patrol officers. He said officers were doing more by issuing record numbers of criminal citations,, but were getting paid less because union representatives did not secure raises.

Dan Fickus, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3, said his group had no help from Clark during negotiations with Mayor Martin O'Malley last year.

"Where was Clark last year when we got zero salary increase?" Fickus said after the hearing.

Clark said his officers are courageous and that their efforts to stop criminal organizations are dangerous and deserve respect. "You've got a police department that needs to be thanked sometimes," he said.

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