`Public safety' plan halted

Opposition pressure in City Council leads to withdrawal of idea

May 22, 2007|By John Fritze | John Fritze,Sun reporter

Baltimore's City Council overwhelmingly rejected a proposal yesterday that would have allowed the mayor to lock down streets and close businesses in areas declared an emergency - taking the unusual step of pressuring the bill's sponsor to withdraw the measures before they were fully introduced.

Eleven members of the City Council spoke against the legislation - proposed by City Council Vice President Robert W. Curran - that would have allowed 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."

"I believe that the sponsor is well-intentioned, but I think it's a bad idea and I think it's a bad message to send," said City Councilman James B. Kraft. "I'm very concerned about the establishment of martial law in Baltimore."

Curran, who received national attention last week for proposing the legislation, was ultimately forced yesterday to acknowledge that it had virtually no support. In a surprising move, Curran volunteered to withdraw the proposal, and his motion was unanimously supported.

"I'm not going to have this tear this council apart," Curran said after several colleagues voiced their opposition. "I had good intentions when I put in these bills. I thought the appropriate thing was to allow the discussion. ... If I'm wrong and the murder rate goes up, God help us all."

The legislation would have permitted police to limit the number of people who could gather on sidewalks, in streets or in other outdoor areas in the safety zones and would have prohibited the sale and possession of weapons. Zones would have been established solely by the mayor, initially for two weeks, with the option to renew indefinitely.

Provisions of the bill were 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 last week.

However, critics immediately questioned the constitutionality of Curran's legislation, and several members of the council noted yesterday that Mayor Sheila Dixon has been shifting away from the zero-tolerance policies of past administrations and toward an approach that focuses more attention on individual criminals.

Curran is considered an ally of Dixon and, traditionally, the City Council vice president acts as the mayor's floor leader, helping to shepherd the administration's legislation through the council. Less than three months ago, with Dixon's support, Curran pushed through the council a ban on smoking in the city's bars and restaurants - a move that was followed by the General Assembly passing a statewide ban.

But Dixon's response to this legislation was tepid, and the mayor met with Curran and spoke with several council members over the past several days to voice her objections to the bill.

A spokesman for the mayor suggested that yesterday's council action is an indication that officials want to give the administration's crime-fighting strategy a chance to succeed before trying new ideas.

"Mayor Dixon believes that her public safety strategy ... is moving the city in the right direction," said the spokesman, Anthony McCarthy. "She hopes that the action today by the council is an indicator that people are going to give her strategy a chance."

Baltimore is employing a somewhat similar strategy, called Operation Protect, in which the city barricades individual neighborhoods and floods them with police and city services. Two neighborhoods, one in Park Heights and the other near McElderry Park, are taking part in the program now, and Dixon has vowed to establish two more.

However, some of the bill's provisions - especially the language that would have allowed businesses to be shut down - went far beyond what is currently in place.

Only one council member, Nicholas C. D'Adamo Jr., rose to say that Curran should have had a chance to introduce the measure.

Curran proposed the idea in three forms: as an ordinance that would have become part of the city's code; as a charter amendment, which would have required approval by city voters; and as a nonbinding resolution.

"It's very unfair to ... stop him from putting a bill in the City Council," D'Adamo said.

But others quickly staked out their opposition to the bill. Though the council members praised Curran's intentions, they called the legislation disturbing and embarrassing. One said it was the kind of legislation that led to fascism in Europe.

City Councilman and mayoral candidate Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. said he was worried about the infringement on civil liberties.

Del. Jill P. Carter, a Baltimore Democrat who is also running for mayor, called the legislation irresponsible.

"It's a misuse of law enforcement resources in an overly divisive and negative strategy that will do more harm than good," Carter said in a statement. "This suggestion is an extreme one that is only being made because of the failure of current law enforcement approaches."

john.fritze@baltsun.com

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