City election puts focus on anti-crime efforts

Stubborn homicide rate stands out as police cite drops in other violations

Election 2004

October 24, 2004|By Ryan Davis | Ryan Davis,SUN STAFF

The campaign promise Mayor Martin O'Malley made five years ago was uncommonly specific for a politician. The Democrat pledged to reduce the city's annual homicide rate to 175 by 2002.

That didn't happen.

To some, O'Malley has still been successful. Crime is down 41 percent from 1999, police say. Shootings, rapes, robberies, aggravated assaults, burglaries - everything but the homicide rate is significantly down. The number 175 was merely a lofty, inspirational goal, many supporters say.

And he has revolutionized policing in the city, importing New York City's statistics-driven style that relies on crime mapping and combating trends.

"We have created a culture that expects progress on this issue," O'Malley says. "That didn't exist before."

From the other perspective, homicides are the only statistic that criminologists hold up as unassailable, and that number hasn't dropped as the mayor promised. It never dipped below 253 and it's rising.

Critics also point to instability within the Police Department. O'Malley's first police commissioner left after 57 days. His second commissioner is in prison. His current commissioner was briefly suspended this year after a domestic dispute.

"The first few years there was momentum," says Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr. "People began to believe and at least feel the perception that crime was going down. ... We've lost that momentum."

Five years after that fateful promise, there's little suspense as to whether O'Malley will be re-elected. But crime remains a key issue, as it will as long as Baltimore stays one of America's most violent and drug-addicted cities. And through the promises made during his first mayoral campaign, O'Malley has tied his political image to making Baltimore safer.

"Martin won the election the first time primarily on that issue," says former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. "He's probably quite concerned by the inability to bring down the numbers as dramatically as he wanted."

Opponents don't question that O'Malley has put a lot of effort into crime reduction. But some supporters offer tepid endorsements.

"I would say in some ways we've made progress, in some areas we haven't," says City Council President Sheila Dixon.

Political observers say the 175-homicide promise shouldn't hinder the mayor's re-election effort. "In a city where the registration is 9 to 1, Democrat to Republican, it can go away," says Matthew A. Crenson, a Johns Hopkins University political scientist.

But O'Malley is certain to be reminded of that promise again, particularly if he runs for governor in 2006, Crenson says. He predicts that O'Malley will respond by highlighting the short-term homicide reduction he achieved and proclaiming substantial decreases in other crime. He can note the conditions he inherited and say that, despite promises, a mayor cannot single-handedly cut crime.

Recently O'Malley and his police commissioner have pointed the finger several times at the rest of the criminal justice system - the federal prosecutor for taking fewer gun cases, judges for alleged lax sentences and the state juvenile justice system for releasing youths from detention.

Political experts add that crime seems to have declined in significance as an issue to voters, a trend that also could benefit O'Malley. Crime wasn't mentioned during the presidential debates, says Lenneal J. Henderson, a professor at the University of Baltimore's School of Public Affairs.

But the mayor's opponents haven't forgotten crime. How much do they think he should be held responsible for homicides?

"Not much - unless he puts himself in that position, which he did," says write-in candidate Frank M. Conaway, the clerk of the city Circuit Court. "He promised in the last election that he would bring homicides down to 175 or less."

Republican candidate Elbert "Ray" Henderson says the failure to get homicides below 175 hurt public trust. "When you start losing your credibility, I think the people see that and they start losing hope," he says.

Crime is declining citywide, according to police figures. But some say they haven't felt the impact.

"The Police Department continues to say crime is down, shooting is down, however the murder rate is still climbing," Councilman Bernard C. "Jack" Young says. "It doesn't add up to me."

As a councilman, O'Malley challenged his predecessor's numbers, alleging that shootings were being inaccurately reported. But O'Malley says he offered his criticism after scouring police reports and hospital data.

"The difference between my questioning then and this political challenge," he says, "is that I actually had some documented proof."

A city's homicide rate would not be the best judge of its crime rate, criminologists say, except it's about the only number not open to police discretion. Baltimore's homicide rate last topped 300 in 1999. There have been more homicides this year - 236 going into the weekend - than there were at the same point in 1999.

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