City crime stats a sitting duck as Duncan targets state office

October 18, 2005|By MICHAEL OLESKER

At the Edward F. Borgerding District Court Building in the city of Baltimore yesterday, there was nothing special. Defendants marched in, with the usual respect for the law, wearing hooded sweat shirts and jeans with the belt lines yielding to gravity. They mumbled into their sneakers when they stood before judges. There were 38 cases on the Northwest District docket, and 67 more on the Western docket.

Somewhere in Montgomery County, Doug Duncan will hear about such routine business, and take it to the bank. He is county executive there and, on Thursday, is slated to announce his run for the Democratic nomination for governor of Maryland. Already, we have hints of Duncan's campaign intentions. They come out of places such as the Borgerding court building and land in the lap of Mayor Martin O'Malley, who also wishes to be governor.

The city's crime rate drops dramatically, but not its homicide count. Nor, in the public description from Duncan, has its reputation improved. In the district courts yesterday, it was the usual business: assaults and break-ins and car theft, some homicides on their way to higher courts, and almost all of this driven by drug trafficking. Thus, the obvious target for Duncan: He runs against not only O'Malley, but also his city and its enduring crime.

Montgomery County is a different world. Baltimore, with roughly 650,000 people, does cartwheels when we keep our homicides below 300 a year. Montgomery County, with roughly 930,000 people, had 18 murders last year. That is not a misprint. At mid-year count this summer, it had six.

"Our crime rate's so low, you wouldn't believe it if it weren't true," Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler was saying yesterday. "Half our homicides are domestic. It's rarely stranger-on-stranger. There's very little violent crime here at all. When you attend a Montgomery County political event, or a community event, they're talking about transportation issues, or housing or schools. Very rarely do you hear mention of crime."

Martin O'Malley wishes he had such luxury, but he does not. And his dilemma now becomes his party's. Democratic leaders are asking Duncan and O'Malley to stick to statewide issues and to criticize the current governor, but to avoid ripping each other's home communities for political points.

These leaders are mainly talking to Duncan. O'Malley, with roots in Montgomery County, has no wish to antagonize folks in such a prosperous, and vote-rich, jurisdiction. But Duncan looks at Baltimore and inevitably must ask, How can I pass up such a target, and not blame O'Malley for its troubles?

Especially with Duncan's numbers. The early polls say he trails O'Malley, and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., as well. Duncan sloughs this off. One day this summer, standing in a little backyard gathering in Southwest Baltimore County's Halethorpe, Duncan was asked about his seeming inability to get much early traction going.

"The polls," he said, "have me trailing Ehrlich, but half the people in the state don't know me. Everybody in the state knows Ehrlich. They have me trailing O'Malley, and 90 percent of the people in the state know him. Ehrlich is the single most vulnerable Republican governor in the country. O'Malley's the mayor who promised to end crime, and they're still killing each other in his city."

This will lead us, as the campaign for governor builds steam, into deeper discussions of responsibility: How much, exactly, do we credit (or blame) a mayor (or county executive) for a community's crime problems? For this, go back to the state's attorney Gansler.

"Crime's low in Montgomery County," he said, "because we have a phenomenal police department and a very concerned citizenry. There's a great deal of community involvement, of people looking out for each other. Our closure rate's very high. There are very few outstanding cases, homicide or otherwise.

"And it's not that we're a rich county. Montgomery County isn't the county of people's perceptions. We have rich and poor, and white and nonwhite. The school system is majority non-white. So, does a county executive, or a mayor, effect the crime rate? Directly, almost not at all. But they're the ones responsible for hiring and firing of police chiefs."

Baltimore, as Duncan has noted, has had a run of police commissioners since O'Malley took office.

"I'm not sure how fair it is to blame O'Malley," Gansler said. "It's not like there's one issue that keeps coming up with these commissioners. Is O'Malley going to be blamed? Sure. Is it fair to blame him? Who knows? What the mayor did say was, I'm going to address the crime problem. He made it more of an issue than his actual ability to control it.

"And there's the real problem. It's very dangerous to take credit when crime goes down, because then you've got to take blame when it doesn't."

Beginning Thursday, we'll see how this gets translated through the perceptions of Doug Duncan.

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