Crime plan puts city's elections more on track

June 08, 2007|By JEAN MARBELLA

Now we're talking.

Up to now, the campaigns for this fall's city elections have mostly generated white noise -- some throat clearing here, some schoolyard shoving there -- barely audible outside whatever frequency those who follow City Hall maneuverings tune into.

To recap, for the rest of you, there was Chairgate -- City Council members Keiffer Mitchell and Kenneth Harris, running, respectively, for mayor and council prez, losing committee chairmanships after announcing their runs. Then there was Bankgate (Mitchell getting put on unpaid leave at Harbor Bank, where his opponent, Mayor Sheila Dixon, keeps her campaign funds), followed by Fliergate (the city canceling a job fair after Mitchell distributed fliers promoting it).

All mildly interesting, but also rather meta -- as in, a political campaign that's all about the political campaign.

Yesterday, though, Mitchell announced his crime plan, and, coming on the heels of proposals from the other candidates, it puts the issue where it should be -- front and center of this year's elections.

Crime is what anyone who wants to be mayor needs to focus on -- with total urgency and commitment. When FBI stats show that Baltimore's homicide rate is second only to Detroit's, that's basically akin to not being the poorest state as long as Mississippi remains in the union. Meaning: We're scraping absolute bottom, and no one should tolerate that.

The rising number of homicides and shootings has prompted other candidates, including Dixon and City Council President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, to similarly propose or launch crime-fighting initiatives. Even Councilman Robert Curran jumped in with proposed legislation -- ultimately withdrawn in the face of his colleagues' opposition -- that would have imposed martial law-like conditions in certain high-crime zones.

The main aspects of Mitchell's plan are fully staffing the Police Department, focusing on gangs, combating the stop-snitching culture by adequately funding the witness protection plan, cutting off the flow of drugs into the city and heightening police-community partnerships.

All well and good. Which you also could say for Dixon's plan (targeting the small group of criminals causing the most mayhem, flooding certain zones with extra officers and services, increasing foot patrols, cracking down on illegal guns) and Rawlings-Blake's (spend $2 million to recruit officers to fill vacancies in the Police Department).

But what works?

Jeffrey Ian Ross, a criminologist at the University of Baltimore, has seen any number of crime plans come -- and go -- in his 12 years of working first in Washington and then here. He started listing some -- community policing, COMSTAT, Weed and Seed, "some flirtation with the Boston model," zero tolerance and others whose names he can't quite remember. But ultimately, he said, it doesn't matter.

"Whatever plan you do, it has to be strategic and comprehensive," Ross said. "The problem in Baltimore is not a lack of plans, it's an inability to stick to the plan."

Baltimore has been hampered by the frequent turnover in the police commissioner's office in recent years, he said, which has led to equally frequent shifts in crime-fighting strategies.

"You don't have continuity at the top, so the ability to get the job done is circumvented," Ross said.

The other problem, in his eyes, is the lack of coordination among all the criminal justice agencies.

"If anything's going to help reduce the amount of crime, it's coordination," he said. "It's everyone on the same sheet of music. I don't see that going on in a systematic fashion, and that frustrates law enforcement officers and it feeds into the cycle of mutual blame. You have to have the state's attorney's office and other criminal justice agencies and the courts and corrections working with you."

Tensions, to put it mildly, between City Hall and the state's attorney's office have flared in recent years, from former Mayor Martin O'Malley cursing out State's Attorney Patricia Jessamy, and later Dixon and Rawlings-Blake getting in their own jabs.

Perhaps every crime fighting plan needs not just the Operation Protects and the Adopt-a-Blocks and such, but also a MakeNice WithJessamyStat. (On Page 8 of Mitchell's eight-page crime plan, his pledge to "facilitate inter-agency cooperation" includes the state's attorney's office among those agencies.) Of course, that might be harder than increasing the number of police or foot patrols. But not impossible, Ross said.

"In cities where they have successfully decreased crime -- Boston, Chicago, New York to a certain extent ... Charlotte -- you had a more comprehensive approach," he said. "That is a tall order. You need a skilled mayor to bring that off."

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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Find Jean Marbella's column archive at baltimoresun.com/marbella

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