End could be near for `Believe' drive

Dixon weighs ending initiative begun in Baltimore in '02 to fight drugs, crime

February 12, 2007|By John Fritze | John Fritze,Sun reporter

It began as a two-month advertising blitz against drugs and crime but grew into a central, defining theme of Baltimore government -- a battle cry in black and white, called out from firehouses, schools and City Hall itself.

Baltimore's "Believe" campaign -- though still clinging to the back bumpers of some city vehicles -- appears to be ending, weeks after its creator, Mayor Martin O'Malley, became governor. Sheila Dixon, his successor as mayor, is weighing a recommendation to drop the initiative.

Criticized by some as a public relations gimmick, the "Believe" bumper stickers, T-shirts, buttons and trash cans became, at the very least, a ubiquitous symbol of O'Malley's administration. Though hard to measure, some say "Believe" accomplished its goal, challenging residents to focus on Baltimore's potential while acknowledging its crime- and drug-ravaged neighborhoods.

"It was the first stage of recovery. I think it was instrumental in causing the community to look at itself in a very stark and realistic way," said Michael Cryor, a communications consultant who revamped O'Malley's public relations office and who was a chairman of the "Believe" effort. "To do that in public was, frankly, pretty novel."

Dixon has not said directly that she is killing the initiative, but a Jan. 29 report drafted by her transition committee called for "phasing out the `Believe' campaign." Aides acknowledge she is considering that recommendation, along with nearly 250 others contained in the report.

Expect an answer in coming weeks, said Andrew B. Frank, deputy mayor of economic development.

"I am not clear on whether the mayor has accepted this or many of the other 245 recommendations," Frank said. "Over the next couple of weeks ... just through us doing our job, we will begin to implement many of the recommendations."

Unveiled in April 2002 at the Israel Baptist Church in East Baltimore, the $2 million campaign -- paid for by the Baltimore Police Foundation -- initially centered on a four-minute television advertisement that showed people using heroin and crack cocaine, a subject so touchy that many in the business community balked. The ads ran only a handful of times, but "Believe" lived on long after its airtime ran out.

Paramedics distributed "Believe" business cards with treatment options to overdose victims. "Believe" bumper stickers proliferated on city streets. Thousands attended a "Baltimore Believe Day" in Druid Hill Park. More than 100,000 trash cans emblazoned with the "Believe" logo wound up in city neighborhoods -- though many were later stolen. Neighborhood cleanups and school paint jobs fell under the "Believe" banner.

O'Malley unveiled the "Believemobile," a 28-foot tractor-trailer that converts into a concert stage. Revisionist bumper stickers -- "BeLIEve," "Behave" and "Beehive" -- soon cropped up.

The concept was adopted in Britain after O'Malley visited Westminster, a borough of London -- though leaders there chose "Together" as the motto. During the waning days of his city administration, O'Malley still kept a small basket outside his office with buttons that read "believe" in Spanish, Chinese and other languages.

"Believe," the slogan, was coined by John Linder, a consultant O'Malley hired to overhaul the Police Department and help turn around the image of the city.

The slogan eventually spun into "Reason to Believe," which Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, the city's health commissioner at the time, described as the action arm of the effort. Private foundations, such as the Annie E. Casey Foundation, raised millions for after-school programs, drug treatment and other projects targeting at-risk youth.

"The action arm of the campaign did make a difference," Beilenson said. "It was focused basically on keeping kids and their families safe and ready to learn. The great thing about it was that it raised the money to just target these four or five key strategies."

But the various incarnations of "Believe" were often under attack. A 2002 report on the campaign, for instance, found that while it had inspired thousands to seek drug treatment, more than two-thirds of those who needed help had to wait months to receive it.

Others labeled a new round of television advertisements launched by "Reason to Believe" in 2003 political, because they came in the middle of the city's campaign season. Some suggested money spent on posters, stickers and other promotional material could have been put to better use.

"Believe" came under especially heavily scrutiny in late 2002, when the home of Angela and Carnell Dawson was set on fire after the couple had reported drug dealing on their block to police. Angela Dawson and the couple's five children perished in the blaze, and Carnell Dawson died a week later. A $14 million lawsuit was filed against city and state leaders arguing that the "Believe" initiative encouraged residents to report crime but that the city failed to protect informants from retribution. The lawsuit was dismissed in June.

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