Mayoral anti-crime efforts always look good, on paper

May 02, 2007|By GREGORY KANE

My first inkling that Mayor Sheila Dixon had a different crime strategy than her immediate predecessor came when I saw the foot patrolmen on Garrison Avenue, between Beaufort and Elmer avenues.

Before Dixon addressed reporters at a news conference Monday, I talked briefly with Baltimore Police Commissioner Leonard D. Hamm about foot patrolmen, at long last, coming to that part of Garrison Avenue.

"The neighborhood knucklehead contingent seems to be absent," I told Hamm.

"Yeah, but these guys usually just move to another area," Hamm answered. "Now they've moved to Spaulding [Avenue]. So now the patrols are on Spaulding."

Judge for yourself how plugged in Hamm is to what's happening on the streets: Here's a commissioner who, once he hears the streets Garrison, Beaufort and Elmer avenues, knows not only where they are, but where the drug dealers who used to work them have now moved.

That Hamm knows this shows he's one fine police commissioner, my past criticism of him notwithstanding. That Dixon has authorized the use of foot patrolmen shows that she must be listening to somebody when she attends community meetings.

Whether or not the most recent crime strategy Dixon and Hamm unveiled Monday will be effective is quite another matter. Dixon sounded a recurring theme that there is no "quick fix" when it comes to fighting crime in Baltimore. Nothing illustrates that better than the neighborhood that contains Garrison, Beaufort, Elmer and Spaulding avenues.

In 1982, some uniformed Baltimore police officers tried to arrest a Jamaican immigrant who was allegedly selling marijuana at the corner of Belvedere and Elmer avenues. The alleged drug dealer, Rupert E. Campbell, fled from the cops, eventually crashing through the plate-glass window of the front door of a home on Spaulding Avenue.

Officers followed Campbell inside. After a brief struggle, Campbell was subdued and died of cardiac arrest at Sinai Hospital. Some witnesses claimed they saw police beating Campbell. A woman who lived in the house said one officer pressed his foot down on Campbell's throat before he went into cardiac arrest, according to articles that appeared in The Sun.

The result was a mini-insurrection in the vicinity of the neighborhood bordered by Belvedere Avenue on the north, Garrison on the south, Elmer on the east and Beaufort on the west. Baltimore police swooped in seven days later, searched a dozen homes and made 29 arrests. The neighborhood was split into pro-police and anti-police camps, but one thing couldn't be denied: The catalyst for the events was the undeniable fact of drug dealing at the corner of Belvedere and Elmer avenues.

The mayor then was William Donald Schaefer. The state's attorney was William Swisher. Kurt Schmoke, who defeated Swisher and later was elected mayor, held no elected office in Baltimore at the time.

Four mayors, one generation and too many police commissioners to count later, there is still drug dealing in the neighborhood bordered by the streets mentioned above. The annual number of homicides remains persistently high. (It did dip below 300 under former mayor and current Gov. Martin O'Malley, but I've yet to read in a nonlocal newspaper the words, "The number of homicides in Baltimore hit a stupefyingly low 260 this year.")

When Dixon talks about "no quick fix" to the crime problem, that's not just some politician trying to blow smoke in our eyes. The mayor knows what she's talking about. Dixon's been around a while, perhaps longer than she'd like to admit. (She jested with reporters about not giving her age.)

Dixon was elected to the City Council in 1987, when the Pimlico community that makes up the neighborhood of Garrison, Elmer, Spaulding and Beaufort avenues was a mixed poor and middle-class neighborhood struggling with a crime problem related to drugs. Some 20 years later, the neighborhood remains exactly that. What part of Dixon's new crime plan will make any difference in the same neighborhood 20 years from now?

The mayor said her two public safety goals are "to protect our citizens from our most violent criminals and get communities the resources they need to overcome longtime social challenges."

Operation Protect, part of Dixon's plan, calls for getting "young people and adults the resources they need to learn, to find jobs, to get help with housing and treatment for their addictions."

That sounds good on paper; it also sounds like something every mayor since at least Schaefer -- and probably Thomas D'Alesandro III -- did before Dixon. The lone maverick in the stretch of six mayors from D'Alesandro III to Dixon was Schmoke, who dared propose decriminalizing drugs and treating addiction as a health problem. Schmoke is no longer mayor and lives a comparatively drama-free life as the dean of the Howard University School of Law.

Decriminalizing drugs and treating addiction as a health problem were notably absent from Dixon's list of proposals. I can't blame her. Suggesting bold, risky and innovative proposals is no way to get elected

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