Council is loud about Iraq, quiet about city

December 07, 2005|By GREGORY KANE

Members of our illustrious Baltimore City Council made a big whoop recently when they sallied forth into an area in which they are all eminently qualified: foreign policy.

Yes, late last month, only two days before Thanksgiving, the council weighed in on the war in Iraq, which they all think is a turkey. By unanimous vote, council members called on President Bush and members of Congress to "commence a humane, orderly, immediate and comprehensive withdrawal" of American troops from Iraq.

Where would that leave Iraqis - like the Kurds - who have benefited from America's removal of Saddam Hussein as Iraq's thug in chief? Council members didn't say. They just know they want American troops gone from that country, and the sooner the better.

There's a certain logic to their position. U.S. dollars spent to blow up and then rebuild Iraq, council members probably figure, could be better spent in American cities, like, say, Baltimore. Our council representatives ask, and rightly so, why those dollars can't be used for improving education and fighting poverty and building infrastructure right here in our town.

Here's another resolution they could pass, but don't hold your breath waiting for council members to vote for this one: "We hereby beseech Mayor Martin O'Malley and Baltimore police Commissioner Leonard Hamm to end the illegal Terry stops in this city, to properly document the ones that are legal and to use arrests for petty crimes strictly against those people who frequent open-air drug markets on a regular basis."

Such a resolution would be an example of city legislators acting as a check-and-balance on the mayor. They would be holding the mayor and police chief accountable for what some have called, at best, very draconian and, at worst, downright illegal law enforcement practices. They would, in short, be doing their jobs.

But that's not the way things have historically worked in Baltimore. City Council members in this town have traditionally acted as a rubber stamp for the mayor. That is, until two men came to the council and decided that nonsense was going to change.

One of them was O'Malley, who represented the old 3rd District at the time. The other was Lawrence Bell from the old 4th District. Before long, Bell was elected president of the council, where along with O'Malley he continued to defy, question and challenge the administration of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.

As fate would have it, Bell and O'Malley ran against each other during the 1999 mayoral race. Baltimoreans elected O'Malley. Bell, whose only offense was doing his job as council president competently and effectively, got kicked to the curb. O'Malley was promoted, and Bell resigned his post. The council's two most vocal and reliable voices against mayoral excesses were gone.

Their successors might be Councilmen Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. and Kenneth N. Harris Sr. Mitchell was a leading voice opposing O'Malley's policy of having the city build a new hotel in downtown Baltimore. Harris has criticized some current police policies and said he would have no problem with a resolution telling the mayor and commissioner that they need to slow their roll when it comes to illegal Terry stops, in which an officer stops and searches someone based on the officer's "reasonable suspicion" of illegal activity.

"I have no problem looking at illegal or inappropriate behavior that affects the people of Baltimore," Harris said this week. (Being the incorrigible dickens I am, I had asked Harris if he would have any objection to the council passing a "stop illegal Terry stops" resolution.)

Harris isn't one of those "soft on crime" types. He sits on the council's Public Safety Subcommittee. Harris knows there is an alternative to Baltimore's crime problem that differs from the jackboot approach adopted by the O'Malley-Hamm regime.

Three years ago, Harris held a "solutions summit" to give Baltimore's citizens an opportunity to give their views on how to reduce crime in the city. Imagine that. Actually talking to ordinary folks as if their opinions mattered. O'Malley and Hamm - the original "We Are Always Right" twins - could learn something from that.

One of the solutions proposed at the summit was reviving foot patrols in Baltimore.

"I think we need to look at foot patrols," Harris said then. "We hear there's not enough cooperation between the police and the community. When you have officers out there doing foot patrols, there's more contact. When you get out of the car, you can start having conversations and cooperation."

I'm sure there are Baltimore cops who would rather talk with neighborhood residents than harass, arrest and stop those who are engaged in little or no criminal conduct. The solution is so simple - and one that has been proposed by several senior citizens for years - that we have to wonder why our mayor didn't choose that as his first option.

Maybe Harris can address that when he proposes his "stop illegal Terry stops" resolution. But so far it looks like he'll be the only one voting for it.

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