A subtle shift

March 19, 2007

As Baltimore's police commissioner reported a 17 percent decrease in violent crime to a meeting of criminal justice officials last week, city detectives were investigating a spate of murders and shootings in Northeast Baltimore. Drugs figured in three of the deaths, which is to say they are typical of Baltimore homicides. Despite the reported drop in violent crime, the number of murders is higher than last year at this time. Shootings are also up. It's what the city has come to expect: a steady run of gun violence and a police response that barely keeps it in check.

But something has changed in the police response to crime. And the statistics bear this out: Arrests overall in the city so far are down 14.6 percent compared with last year, and the stunner, the number of people who were released without charges dropped 27 percent. A statistical anomaly? The weather? We hope it's a reflection of citizen complaints about the police practice of arresting people for minor crimes such as loitering and drunkenness.

Locking people up for such minor crimes that city prosecutors then declined to charge had become a point of contention that wasn't serving the department's overall interests. What had been a hallmark of the O'Malley administration - the "broken window" theory of New York-style policing - was undermining police efforts in the community. The arrests led to a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Police need the cooperation of citizens to fight the intractable crimes plaguing this city. Police officials say they are focusing their efforts on getting illegal guns off the street. It's part of policing an area based on the crime specific to it. If arresting fewer petty criminals allows for a smarter strategy to pursue violent offenders, the shift should lead to fewer shootings and murders.

Mayor Sheila Dixon has said she wants to bring a holistic approach to policing. But no one has explained just what that means. Rousting fewer people from street corners for petty crimes? We're all ears.

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