M is for murder

Editorial Notebook

January 27, 2007|By Ann LoLordo

The murders were occurring almost daily, but when the surge of violence claimed the lives of two innocents - a young mother and a high school band director - people rose up to say, "Enough!" From ministers to moving men to high-schoolers, they gathered by the hundreds until they marched on City Hall, 3,000 strong, to protest city officials' lack of urgency.

This wasn't Baltimore; it was New Orleans. And while the emotion on display in the Big Easy recently wasn't unlike the anguish felt in Baltimore when an off-duty police officer was gunned down, the collective response was markedly different.

Baltimoreans have reason enough to be fed up - January so far has been among the deadliest in years. But many citizens have been reluctant to speak out because of fear, frustration or a distrust of the police. Others may be overwhelmed by the numbing figures, inured to the killing and the drug dealing that drives so much of the violence. But city residents can't sit out this fight, because the hard truth is that law enforcement can't solve this alone.

Sadly, there are too many citizens who are wary of the police, sometimes for cause and other times because they rely on relatives who are involved in crime and can't disavow them. Judges have spoken candidly of the disdain juries have for the police. That suggests an attitude in need of adjustment and a police image in need of rehabilitation. But the reality is that defense lawyers feel moderately confident that city juries will acquit their clients in spite of police testimony. And if criminal suspects are similarly confident, the prospect of punishment holds no sway over them.

City prosecutors do convict murderers. But they are convicting less often - from 64 percent in 1999 to 60 percent in 2005 - because of witnesses who disappear, police searches that don't measure up, cops who don't report for trial and jurors who don't believe police.

In New Orleans, the spate of murders was the latest aftershock in a hurricane-ravaged city struggling to rebuild and reclaim its sense of self. The protest marches there led to promises of more street cops, additional surveillance cameras, faster prosecutions of murder cases. In Baltimore, despite a decline in violent crime, the murders just keep coming. When he eulogized the slain city officer Jan. 17, Commissioner Leonard D. Hamm called on residents to address the violence in a "more open and honest" way; the responsibility was as much theirs as his, he said.

That's a public conversation that should be had in Baltimore. And Mayor Sheila Dixon should kick it off with a series of town meetings where grievances are voiced, biases checked, needs aired and relationships forged. It should be led by neighborhood, religious and civic leaders who can identify ways that churches, institutions and other organizations and their members can help deter crime - staff a youth center, mentor teen offenders, sponsor addiction support groups, adopt an elementary school, establish a block watch for seniors, tutor ex-offenders. The initiatives should be shared and replicated across the city because not every community will have the means to participate.

Similar programs exist today, but they don't do enough to attack the underlying causes of crime. A drug addict who successfully completes treatment but can't find a job with a living wage will return to the corner. A 12-year-old left to fend for himself because his only parent works two jobs may seek out a gang.

The Rev. Walter Scott Thomas, who leads New Psalmist Baptist Church, says church-based programs must serve more than their members if they are to make a difference in the community beyond their church doors. Another influential pastor, the Rev. Frank M. Reid III of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal, points to the Harlem Children's Zone in New York as an example of the intensive outreach needed to rebuild neigborhoods and family life. Working in Harlem since 1970, the organization set out to transform the community block by block; its 15 centers now serve more than 12,000, the majority of whom are at-risk kids.

But in Baltimore, the killings continue, 24 as of yesterday. So the question remains: How many more murders will it take before Baltimoreans are fed up enough to do something about it?

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