`Desperate' plan to slow crime

Council bill would put areas of city under enforcement some liken to martial law

May 17, 2007|By John Fritze | John Fritze,Sun reporter

The legislation — Large swaths of Baltimore could be declared emergency areas subject to heightened police enforcement - including a lockdown of streets - under a city councilman's proposal that aims to slow the city's climbing homicide count.

The legislation - which met with a lukewarm response from Mayor Sheila Dixon's administration yesterday, and which others likened to martial law - would allow police to close liquor stores and bars, limit the number of people on city sidewalks and halt traffic in areas declared "public safety act zones." It comes as the number of homicides in Baltimore reached 108, up from 98 at the same time last year.

"Desperate measures are needed when we're in desperate situations," said City Council Vice President Robert W. Curran, the bill's author. "What I'm trying to do is give the mayor additional tools."

By introducing the legislation, Curran - who is an ally of Dixon - is promoting increased enforcement at a time when City Hall is moving in the opposite direction, shifting away from zero tolerance and toward an approach that focuses more attention on individual criminals. Dixon has sought to ease tension between police and residents who feel the city's past arrest policies were overzealous.

In addition to closing businesses in the zones, the bill would permit police to limit the number of people who could gather on sidewalks, in streets or in other outdoor areas. It would prohibit the sale and possession of weapons, though Curran acknowledged that weapons used by criminals are almost always already obtained illegally. Zones could be established solely by the mayor, initially for a two weeks, with the option to renew indefinitely.

Provisions of the bill are identical to a law in Philadelphia that recently gained attention when a mayoral candidate and former city councilman proposed relying more aggressively on the code. That candidate, Michael Nutter, won the Democratic nomination for mayor Tuesday.

Echoing an element of Nutter's campaign platform, Curran said police would be encouraged to do "very aggressive and constitutional" frisking of individuals for weapons in the zones. That practice has been under scrutiny since a 2005 report in The Sun found the department lost track of how many times it pats people down.

Curran's proposal, which he said he would introduce in the City Council on Monday, is also likely to raise questions by civil libertarians, as it has in Philadelphia. Less aggressive approaches, including a 1999 program in which Philadelphia police cordoned off neighborhoods in search of residents with outstanding arrest warrants, have been successful, an expert said.

"Things like that, without declaring partial martial law, have been tried previously in Philadelphia and have worked," said Ralph B. Taylor, a criminal justice professor at Temple University, who said cities should look to strategies that have worked in the past before proposing new ideas. "The partial martial law is very controversial here."

Philadelphia's law allows the city to impose a curfew in the emergency zones, but Curran said he removed that provision from his bill because it seemed too strict.

Baltimore is already using a strategy similar to Curran's proposal and has been for years. Under the Community Safe Zone Project of then-Mayor Martin O'Malley - renamed Operation Protect by Dixon - police barricade city neighborhoods and flood them with police and city services. Two neighborhoods, one in Park Heights and the other near McElderry Park, are taking part in the program, and Dixon has promised to set up two more of the zones.

Dixon's administration has made the zones a central theme of its crime-fighting plan.

Asked about Curran's bill, Dixon called it duplicative but did not rule out supporting the measure if some changes are made. After a news conference yesterday, Dixon and Curran met for several minutes in her office to discuss the bill.

"We're already currently in those communities. We're bringing the resources and services to the communities," Dixon said. "I want him to build on what we're attempting to do."

City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., Dixon's leading opponent in this year's mayoral election, said he is reviewing Curran's bill to determine whether it fits with his own crime strategy, which he said he will roll out in the next several weeks.

"It's a tool that's an interesting concept, but the concern I have is that I want to make sure that we respect civil liberties," Mitchell said. "I want to see how it's going to be implemented. It's a tool, but we have to make sure we're not declaring martial law."

The bill is expected to be assigned to the City Council's Public Safety Subcommittee, which Curran chairs - virtually guaranteeing that it will receive a hearing and a vote by the full council. After that, it faces several more tough votes, and its overall prospects are unclear. A spokesman for City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake said she needs to review the legislation.

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