Race card trumps reason in crime debate

October 01, 2006|By DAN RODRICKS

Back in January, Mayor Martin O'Malley and police Commissioner Leonard D. Hamm went to the War Memorial Building for a public meeting on crime and policing that turned raucous and defiant. Comments from the crowd put O'Malley and Hamm squarely between the rock and a hard place: Some citizens complained that they've been abused by aggressive police tactics, while others said the city needs to do more to fight crime.

Since Baltimoreans eager to see crime reduction made him mayor in 1999, O'Malley has been hearing complaints that his aggressive zero-tolerance police strategies, influenced by Rudy Giuliani's tenure as mayor of New York City, have led to thousands of bad arrests and stop-and-frisks that jailed or intimidated law-abiding citizens.

The complaints have grown more acute since O'Malley announced his run for governor, of course, and last week an ally of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. injected race into the criticism.

Billy Murphy, a Democrat and longtime Baltimore attorney, accused O'Malley of sanctioning the mass arrests of black people without ever charging them with a crime. The ad featuring Murphy aired on radio stations with primarily black audiences. Thursday, in a conversation with me and Chip Franklin on WBAL Radio, it didn't take Murphy long to top his criticisms by mentioning Hitler in reference to O'Malley's police tactics.

Race card. Hitler card. Billy club.

I like and respect Billy Murphy and, as I said in last Sunday's column, I think he has valid and important criticisms and speaks of things that make people uncomfortable. But, if things have been so bad for blacks in Baltimore under O'Malley, why haven't we heard from him before now? Why didn't he lend his formidable legal skills to, say, a suit against the city for what he says are thousands of unconstitutional arrests?

And why did Ehrlich approve an ad that suggested the police tactics in Baltimore are racist? "It's a fact," Ehrlich said on WBAL on Thursday, in reference to the arrests being mainly of black Baltimoreans.

Indeed. It's something everyone around here already knows - Baltimore is a majority-black city (that elected O'Malley, the white guy, twice) and the majority of people arrested for violations of the law are black. I'm hunching the majority of victims of crime are black, too.

So why emphasize race if not for the purely cynical purpose of trying to mark O'Malley as a dangerous white guy for the black citizens of Maryland?

If city prosecutors threw out 25,000 cases last year, that forms a substantial foundation for criticism of the O'Malley administration's police tactics. Let's assume all those arrests were wholly unjustified - and not just thrown out because the offenses were petty, or police reports poorly written, or because prosecutors believed the arrest had abated suspected criminal behavior. Isn't it enough to say that zero-tolerance O'Malley has tolerated the violation of the rights of innocent Baltimoreans, and therefore we shouldn't make him governor? You don't need to play the race card, but that's exactly what the Ehrlich campaign did by rolling out Billy Murphy.

Imagine the uproar should O'Malley bring up Ehrlich's opposition, as a congressman in the 1990s, to an effort to desegregate public housing in Baltimore and provide low-income families - predominantly black - with vouchers to move to the suburbs. Ehrlich's base would accuse O'Malley of playing the race card against his Republican opponent. Increasing numbers of Americans grimace and growl every time someone injects race into a debate; they detest the politics of victimization and the race card. And yet, here's Billy Murphy doing Ehrlich's bidding with it.

I can't defend a ridiculous number of bad arrests.

But, let's be honest: Crime-sick Baltimoreans are conflicted about all this - we want police to respect citizens' rights, but we're eager to see a significant and sustained reduction in crime, for the general good of the city, including the old, drug-infested neighborhoods left out of the Baltimore Renaissance. You can't live and invest in Baltimore, or any community near here, and be blind to the "other Baltimore" that Billy Murphy first described when he ran for mayor 23 years ago.

Let's run things up to 1999, the year O'Malley ran for mayor and, unlike Murphy, won.

What was O'Malley's campaign all about?

He promised to clean up open-air drug corners, reduce violent crime and make neighborhoods safe: Clifton Park as safe as Roland Park. I don't recall O'Malley stating that he would do something about "black crime," just crime.

Coming out of the long, dreary Schmoke years, Baltimoreans appreciated O'Malley's almost singular focus, along with millions in increased funding dedicated to drug treatment for the city's thousands of addicts who contribute, directly and indirectly, to 80 percent of crime. Baltimoreans, black and white, might not be as upset about the "abate by arrest" practices of the police as Billy Murphy thinks we should be.

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