`Rough patch' hardly suffices

August 16, 2007|By DAN RODRICKS

Martin O'Malley, who once had Baltimore fully in his windshield and not the rear-view mirror, called it a "rough patch." Nearly 200 homicides in the first eight months of 2007, putting Baltimore on a pace to record more than 300 killings for the first time since the bloody 1990s, and O'Malley plays this down as a "rough patch."

No outrage.

No fury.

Not a drop of classic O'Malley sarcasm.

No expression of impatience.

Not a bit of disappointment in his successor for breaking from the smart and aggressive law enforcement strategies that his administration put in place and that appeared to reduce violent crime here.

Quite to the contrary.

O'Malley stood next to Sheila Dixon on Monday and endorsed her continuation as mayor, and oh-well about the spike in homicides. That's no reason for voters to toss Dixon. It's a temporary condition, a little bump in the road, a few potholes on the way to a better day.

Just a "rough patch."

A couple of years ago, O'Malley cracked harshly against the Bush administration for not sufficiently funding homeland security.

Here's Baltimore, struggling again with a genuine homeland security problem - a fierce problem that O'Malley proved a mayor can effectively attack - and he holds his tongue.

The endorsement of Dixon was more important - some kind of IOU, which demonstrates how hollow politics is, and especially so in a city and state dominated by one party.

Neither O'Malley nor Kweisi Mfume was about to talk homicides while endorsing Dixon because they can't argue with the numbers: Violence and homicides have increased during her watch.

And while it may be simplistic and unfair to place responsibility at the mayor's office, that's what Baltimoreans do, and good thing.

While O'Malley was mayor, we had a new rush of energy toward fighting serious crime, a zero-tolerance approach to the worst drug corners and a drop in all violent crimes, including homicides.

It wasn't just coincidence. It wasn't just Baltimore catching the tails of a national trend.

It took thinking, strategizing and political will. It took guts. It took a willingness by the mayor to be accountable for the crime stats.

And it took a firm belief in the idea that people near Clifton Park deserved to feel just as safe as people in Roland Park. Drug-dealing and related violence would not be tolerated anywhere, even among drug dealers and gangstas.

O'Malley's victory in 1999 was a measure of how frustrated and angry Baltimoreans had become during the preceding decade. Citizens black and white voted for someone willing to put brains and energy into curtailing the violent crime that brought Baltimore national notoriety. They pretty much got what they voted for.

Since Dixon has been mayor, there's been a shift away from zero-tolerance policing, a reduction in arrests and a move toward the gobbledygook called "community policing." We are on track for 300 killings for the first time since the year that ended with O'Malley's inauguration.

That's not coincidence. That's not the result of a mysterious force making Baltimoreans more violent.

There's been a change in law enforcement strategy. Dixon introduced a shift in crime-fighting at a time when homicides had started climbing again, and her rhetoric on "community policing" has been predictably and annoyingly fuzzy. She leaves the distinct impression that crime-fighting in the O'Malley era was too harsh - that the cops arrested too many guys.

You'd think O'Malley would have some ownership here and get assurances from the mayoral candidate he endorsed that there would be an effort to stay the course on law enforcement.

O'Malley spent several years, as a councilman and mayor, trying to make Baltimore less violent, and he ran for governor on that record.

At a political event in Baltimore last month, O'Malley was asked about the increase in violence this year, and he said: "I think if you look over the last year and a half - it was happening even as I was mayor, as much as we pushed against it - if you let the enforcement efforts continue to decline, you're going to see the most violent crimes spike up, and that's what happened."

In recent conversations with The Sun's editorial board, he expressed concern that there had been a decline in law enforcement in Baltimore over the last 18 months. As for zero-tolerance policing being too aggressive and resulting in mass arrests, O'Malley said he never heard a community leader complain of too many cops in his or her neighborhood. He said complaints of excessive force by officers declined during his watch.

It's not like being an advocate of zero-tolerance policing in a chronically violent city hurt O'Malley's political career. He was elected mayor twice, and when he ran for governor, 75 percent of city voters backed him.

That was a different O'Malley. It was not the one who would tolerate a change in police strategy for the sake of change, and a muddled strategy at best, an attempt to fix something that wasn't broken. It was not an O'Malley who would describe a serious spike in killings as a "rough patch."

dan.rodricks@baltsun.com

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