Tolerance for crime best at zero

July 22, 2007|By DAN RODRICKS

I don't have results of a sophisticated public opinion poll, but I can tell you what 200 or so men with criminal records told me in 2005: Police pressure on the streets of Baltimore had become too fierce for any of them to think about going back there to sell drugs or do whatever it was that got them locked up in the first place. I heard this comment so many times, I started to suspect that Martin O'Malley had paid guys to say it.

The time of Ed Norris and Kevin Clark - the police commissioners who served from 2000 until 2004, while O'Malley was mayor - were hard years for guys in The Life.

By June 2005, hundreds of them were out on parole or probation and calling here for help in finding jobs. They were all unemployed or underemployed. Many had used drugs. Many had sold drugs. Most had done both and been arrested multiple times.

They were between 25 and 45 years old, and they were tired of hustling, tired of running, tired of their mothers being ashamed of them, tired of being tired.

Were they afraid of being killed? Yes.

But they seemed to be more concerned with getting locked up again.

"It's hard out here, with the police," I heard so many say that I stopped counting.

Zero-tolerance policing, the aggressive enforcement of laws during the O'Malley years, made a lot of people uncomfortable - and not just those on the street. This policy resulted in thousands upon thousands of arrests, many of them for petty offenses. Modeled after a New York City strategy that used timely intelligence and statistics to identify and attack emerging crime trends, zero tolerance was first aimed at Baltimore's most notorious drug corners with the hope of reducing drug-related shootings and homicides.

Something had to be done because the streets were out of control.

Throughout the dreary 1990s, Baltimore recorded 300 or more homicides a year. People in this town - black and white; rich, poor and in the middle - were sick of crime when O'Malley ran for mayor in 1999. He promised to be hands-on when it came to public safety. He promised new urgency. People voted him into office. His team delivered, and people voted for him again in 2003.

Homicides stayed below 300 a year during O'Malley's tenure, falling as low as 253 in 2002. Violent crime dropped about 23 percent.

Now, O'Malley is governor, and homicides and shootings are up again. If the present pace continues, Baltimore's annual count will reach 300 for the first time since 1999.

Maybe it has something to do with this: Almost from the day O'Malley left town, Baltimore police have been shifting away from zero tolerance.

In January, the police commissioner, Leonard Hamm, signaled the change. He and the new mayor, Sheila Dixon, wanted to move toward more "community policing" and away from zero tolerance.

It wasn't needed anymore, Hamm said. The streets, he said, were under control. "Still violent," he said, "but manageable."

That was then. This is now.

Now, Dixon calls the homicide rate "out of control." Hamm caught the blame, and Hamm is gone - dumped by Dixon just a few days after publication of a Sun poll that gave him low scores for effectiveness. Politically, this is supposedly a plus for Dixon. It neutralizes criticism from Keiffer Mitchell and her other opponents in the approaching mayoral primary. It gives Dixon a way of saying, "See, I did something about crime. I fired the commissioner."

It has been said that Dixon wants to distinguish herself from O'Malley, and that she is succeeding in doing so. But not when it comes to reducing violent crime.

Shifting away from an effective strategy, announcing that you're going to rein in police overtime in a department that loses 25 officers per month, makes no sense.

It makes no sense as policy. It makes no sense politically.

Remember how bad things were around here during the 1990s - City Hall as Sleepy Hollow and a police commissioner who did his best to run great detectives out of the department.

Going into 2000, we finally got some energy and ambition in City Hall again.

And his critics knocked him - claimed he was cooking the books, claimed his police were violating civil rights wholesale, refused to give him credit for anything - but O'Malley's tenure as mayor was marked by gains on the crime front. He was elected twice. During the 2006 gubernatorial campaign, his police tactics were attacked along racial lines, and still 75 percent of city voters backed him.

There was criticism of zero tolerance, but not the widespread condemnation that would have forced O'Malley to drop it or face permanent damage to his political career.

So why has Dixon dropped it?

If she hadn't changed strategies, she might not have had to change commissioners.

I agreed with Leonard Hamm about one thing we discussed at headquarters a few times: The war on drugs - arresting and incarcerating addicts without providing treatment - has been a failure. I speak here of the thousands of mainly nonviolent offenders who keep buying and using heroin and cocaine.

I separate them from the truly violent offenders - the gang members, the stickup boys, the ones who prey on the addicted and kill them in the conduct of commerce.

If the law enforcement strategy employed during the O'Malley years reduced the number of potential killers - and potential victims - on the streets, even for short periods of time, then why have we shifted away from that? Makes no sense.

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