Policing Baltimore

May 02, 2004

BALTIMORE POLICE Commissioner Kevin P. Clark's playbook for fighting crime is a dense, fact-laden 77-page document peppered with alliteration. "Disrupt, Debrief, Deploy, Dismantle and Deliver" (the five imperatives of his core strategy). "Multi-Post Mentality" (an approach that concentrates officers in high-crime areas within a police district). "Communication, coordination and cooperation" (the least we can expect).

It all sounds so bedevilingly bureaucratic. How Commissioner Clark's plan plays on the streets of Baltimore, that's the meat of the matter and the true measure of its worth. The elements for success are there:

Commissioner Clark focuses correctly on the nexus between violent crime and the entrenched drug-dealing in chunks of the city. He acknowledges the "hollow" victories of past drug enforcement initiatives that merely moved dealers from corner to corner, and he demands relentless follow-up. He uses crime-mapping technology to hone the department's focus and understands the need to involve communities in the fight.

But a plan is just that - a plan. Fighting crime is a dynamic enterprise that requires flexibility, tenacity and a commitment to stay the course. Commissioner Clark, on the job for about 18 months, is trying to build on the successes of the past - overall crime has declined in Baltimore since the start of the O'Malley administration. The homicide rate inched up in 2003 from the year before, the first increase since 1999. But Commissioner Clark's singular focus on drugs may ratchet it down: 82 percent of murder victims and 68 percent of homicide suspects last year had drug arrests.

Commissioner Clark's creation of an organized crime division to attack the drug problem from the bottom up has led to a sharp increase in felony narcotics arrests. The unit's officers have seized drugs with a street value of $80 million, delivering a financial punch to the drug organizations in town. But unless the dealers and junkies nabbed by police lead to the bigger fish in this fetid pond, the cycle of violence will continue, and Baltimore neighborhoods will hardly be safer.

The commissioner's reliance on criminal citations to reduce nuisance crimes, loitering and the like, is questionable. His crime plan trumpets a 317 percent increase in citations issued and a 16 percent drop in 911 calls, which he says reflects a decline in petty street crime - yet a majority of those criminal citations are never prosecuted.

But make no mistake: The job of ridding the city of professional drug-involved criminals is not the Police Department's alone. Communities know who's dealing and where they hide their stashes. Drug treatment can help deplete the pool of customers if it is readily available. Prosecutors need to pursue the toughest charges, the stiffest penalties. Judges must recognize those demands.

Commissioner Clark has offered an overall strategy to combat crime - but a strategy is only as good as its outcome. Making Baltimore safe will require shutting down drug dealers neighborhood by neighborhood, block by block, corner by corner.

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