Crime taking `weird turn' for the worst these days

For `average citizen,' city is far from a safe place

June 21, 2007|By DAN RODRICKS

Here's how things look in Baltimore: Martin O'Malley as mayor: Zero-tolerance policing, lots of police overtime, and homicides under 300 for the first time in a decade. Sheila Dixon as mayor: A shift away from zero-tolerance, an effort to rein in police overtime, and a homicide rate on a pace to break 300 for the first time since 1999, the year O'Malley was elected.

Too simplistic? I don't think so.

Crime and its specific nature in Baltimore is a complex subject, but when the average citizen reduces recent history to a couple of short sentences - comparing the O'Malley era with Dixon's brief stint as his replacement - you end up with what looks like regression in the effort to make Baltimore a less violent place.

We're halfway through 2007 - the first year without O'Malley as mayor since 1999 and the first year with Dixon in charge. Violent crime generally has dropped, as it has throughout the nation, but shootings and homicides are up, and those crimes have the greatest effect on things. Baltimore has the second-highest murder rate in the nation. How can the city compete for new economic development - ultimately, its only way to a healthier future - with such a morbid distinction? Baltimore's homicide rate in 2006 was more than twice that of Chicago and six times higher than New York City's.

Obviously, it's not all Dixon's fault.

But when you look at what has changed in the six months since O'Malley left to be Maryland governor, what do you see? More shootings and killings - along with a shift away from aggressive zero-tolerance (though O'Malley didn't call it that) and concern about paying too much overtime to a police force that is understaffed by about 300 officers.

Dixon has rolled out her crime-fighting plan, and this week she ordered 500 officers to a meeting at headquarters to hear the details. Good.

But, as the mayoral campaign season kicks into full gear, what's the message we're getting from the woman who would like to stay on as O'Malley's successor in City Hall? That we need to change the crime-fighting strategy that O'Malley initiated?

Why? Because the police were forced to make too many arrests for public urination and loitering? Because some legal experts consider "abatement by arrest" a constitutionally dubious crime-fighting strategy?

If the bottom line was a marginally safer Baltimore - if homicides, for instance, went down and not up - then maybe we should be embracing and refining, not eschewing, O'Malley-era policing. Voters should be looking for a mayoral candidate who will carry on what O'Malley started here.

"It's as if there's been some weird turn," Kim Martin, a Charles Village resident, said yesterday when I asked about the farewell letter she wrote to Dixon last week. She sent me a copy of it. Martin is moving out of Baltimore and settling on a house in Baltimore County next month.

She doesn't simply sense the city becoming more violent; she's seen it happen, from her window on 26th Street.

By "weird turn," Martin was describing the level of violence in the city.

But, in my book, she might as well have been describing changes in police strategy, too. I am not convinced that zero-tolerance is a horrible means to justify an end. From what I've heard - and I've heard a lot of stories from men and women with criminal records - police pressure on certain neighborhoods and certain corners has forced many Baltimoreans to rethink how much time they spend hanging on streets and the edges of trouble.

Anyway, we're losing Kim Martin. She and her 13-year-old daughter are headed out of Baltimore, after less than a year in Charles Village, in the first block north of 25th Street.

"Three weeks after moving in," she wrote Dixon, "I woke up on Sunday morning at 6 a.m. to discover a man in my back bedroom stealing my computer and camera. That shook us up pretty good, but we decided to batten down the hatches (bar the windows, install the alarm system) and try to make a go of it. The winter passed fairly uneventfully, except for the rats, and used condoms and needles I constantly find outside my back gate.

"About a month ago, I heard screaming at the back window and opened it up to witness a man stabbing a woman in broad daylight. I screamed at him to stop, called 911 and ran down to help her. I have never seen anything like this in my life and have lived in a variety of urban settings, including Miami, D.C., and New York City. This tragic event means I have been called as a material witness in the preliminary hearing and coming trial.

"Two weeks later, we came home from Target across 28th Street to find it blocked by fire engines, ambulances and police cars. That was the scene of the fatal shooting of a cab driver."

In addition, Martin says, the city has issued her a series of parking and other citations - one of them for putting her trash out too early - that she considers nuisances and resents at a time when the city has far greater problems.

"Between the overzealous regulation of minor offenses by citizens you should be happy to have in your city and the criminal activity that is completely out of control, we have no choice," Martin wrote Dixon. "I am not naive, nor paranoid. Just a single working mom hoping my daughter is not touched by the violence that is overwhelming this town. We close on our new home July 12. Please try to understand what life is like here for the average citizen in your pursuit of the mayoral office this fall. If nothing changes, I can't see why anyone would want to stick around to see what happens next."

dan.rodricks@baltsun.com

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