Feud hampers anti-gang strategy

Mayor and state's attorney are at odds as public officials work to develop a unified plan

November 03, 2006|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,sun reporter

The feud between the Baltimore state's attorney and Mayor Martin O'Malley has led to an early hurdle in the effort by public officials to develop a unified anti-gang strategy for the city.

Reacting to the growth of gangs, Baltimore's Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, a group of city, state and federal representatives, has used a state grant to study ways to confront the problem.

Yesterday, city State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. talked about the need for a coordinated strategy before they walked into a regional meeting of gang investigators in Hampden.

Questioned about her office's lack of participation in the coordinating council's anti-gang planning in Baltimore, Jessamy said she offered to lead the initiative because her office could provide "consistent" leadership on the issue. But she said she withdrew from the effort because the mayor "did not want me involved."

Meanwhile, city prosecutors have been absent during recent meetings when more than 40 other city and state agencies and nonprofit groups worked to craft a citywide strategy to help them get additional money from state and federal agencies.

But Jessamy maintains that she is at the forefront in pushing for tougher anti-gang legislation. A spokeswoman for Jessamy said that prosecutors have been working on anti-gang initiatives since the spring.

"This is too important an issue to change strategy in the middle of the stream," Jessamy said. "If you change a police commissioner, if you change people in command, then the strategy changes. We need consistency on this issue. I offered consistency. I've been the state's attorney since 1995."

Kristen Mahoney, the Police Department's chief of technical services, said the state notified the city months ago that funds were available to help local jurisdictions develop anti-gang strategies.

She said O'Malley selected the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice to administer a $15,000 planning grant, and that office authorized the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council to work as a "collective body" on an anti-gang strategy.

"No one has ever said we don't want Mrs. Jessamy," Mahoney said. "We've begged Mrs. Jessamy to participate in this process."

Baltimore police and prosecutors -- at least at the top level -- have been battling for years, a problem that seems to be rooted in the mutual dislike between Jessamy and O'Malley. But police officers and prosecutors who work together often say privately that cooperation on criminal cases is usually better than what is portrayed publicly.

At the heart of the latest rift appears to be Jessamy's insistence that prosecutors -- not city police or other agencies -- take the lead in Baltimore's anti-gang efforts. The stakes are high, as Baltimore's law enforcement agencies, from city and schools' police forces to prosecutors and city jail officials, say they are dealing with a rising tide of gang activity on the streets, in the jail and in school hallways.

Hundreds of gang members claiming affiliation to nationally known gangs, such as the Bloods and the Crips, are thought to live in Baltimore, according to city police statistics.

Margaret T. Burns, a city state's attorney's office spokeswoman, said that prosecutors have done "a lot of work" with the city school system and the community.

She said that prosecutors have organized community forums because the office is trying to develop a strategy with input from city residents.

The Criminal Justice Coordinating Council has formed three "workgroups" focused on crafting strategies for prevention and intervention, gang suppression and technology development.

Jim Green, director of special projects for the Baltimore police and chairman of the gang suppression group, said it is "imperative" that the city has one anti-gang strategy. "It is absolutely essential that Baltimore City have a coordinated plan that brings everybody together on these issues."

gus.sentementes@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Julie Bykowicz contributed to this article.

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