Beware the double-edged advertising sword

October 01, 2006|By C. Fraser Smith

Wholesale arrests made without regard for evidence of a crime are crimes in themselves.

Murder and mayhem descending indiscriminately upon the citizenry are equally intolerable.

Welcome to the world of unhappy choices facing a big-city mayor.

A city cannot prosper if random slayings are an undisturbed fact of life. And young black men, already prone to lifelong involvement in the criminal justice system, should not be subjected to random arrest - and the arrest records that follow.

It is the latter possibility that draws the attention of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in his new round of campaign advertisements on the radio.

Mr. Ehrlich charges Mayor Martin O'Malley with victimizing young, black Baltimoreans in his quest for the governorship.

The ads make several other points designed to highlight the mayor's difficulty in finding a police commissioner who can stay the course and drastically curtail crime while being fair to all.

It's fair game. But from a strictly political point of view, Mr. Ehrlich should handle the matter with considerable care. There's another side to the story.

Without conceding that police are operating on a quota system - that police are expected to make a certain number of arrests - City Hall observes that Baltimore residents, black and white, wish to sit on their front steps in peace or go to the neighborhood grocery store without wondering if they'll get back home again.

Last week, on the same day a story appeared in this newspaper describing Mr. Ehrlich's ad, a woman was shot in the head and killed while walking home from work with a friend. No one seemed to know where the shot came from.

But there are those who believe young people on the street are a threat to their quality of life, if not to life itself - and they are not opposed to crime suppression via arrest.

The mayor cannot escape responsibility for the difficult choices. It's his city. He insists that, statistically, violent crime is down and the murder rate reduced since he took office. Both assertions appear to be true. The question is: By how much? Things are going in the right direction, but how quickly?

In a political campaign, a candidate's record should be carefully examined. In this case, questions about the Baltimore Police Department's arrest strategy come in the context of Mr. Ehrlich's effort to cut into the Democratic Party's grip on the black vote. The mayor is accused of targeting young black men, arresting them as a means of getting them off the street - regardless of whether there is sufficient evidence to take the cases to court.

It's a potentially fruitful area for the governor's campaign. Mr. O'Malley pledged to make his city safer, promising to cut deeply into the murder rate, for example. He's made some dents, but the number of murders seems frozen in the 275-to-300 range.

After last week, there was at least one more name on the list of those dead by homicide.

The mayor has responded over time by urging more vigorous prosecution. His Police Department has sent a parade of young people to the criminal justice system, many of whom have walked soon after their arrival. They leave with the telltale arrest record. There are victims at every turn.

Candidate O'Malley says Mr. Ehrlich is going on the attack because he's behind in the polls.

Surely the governor will urge people to reject Mr. O'Malley because the results of his crimefighting rhetoric fall short of the promises.

This issue, along with the issue of poorly performing city schools, illustrates once again the challenge of running for higher office as a big-city mayor. People may wish to see drastic progress toward solving monumental problems. Incremental advances might not satisfy them.

And an opponent can decry the failure to solve problems that have plagued cities such as Baltimore for decades under both white and black mayors.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays. His e-mail address is fsmith@wypr.org.

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