Public safety at center stage

Crime a focus in race for council president

August 29, 2007|By Sumathi Reddy | Sumathi Reddy,Sun reporter

City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake is set today to lay out her plan to improve public safety in Baltimore - and also unleash attacks on her leading opponent, accusing Michael Sarbanes of failing to address violent crime when he worked for the state.

The Rawlings-Blake campaign is specifically trying to connect Sarbanes to several public safety programs initiated under then-Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. Those programs - particularly the HotSpot initiative that had its share of critics in the city - were targeted for attack by former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. when he defeated Townsend in the 2002 gubernatorial race.

Sarbanes, who was executive director of the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention from 1996 to 2000, defended his record yesterday and said that in her 12 years on the City Council, Rawlings-Blake has been "missing in action" and has failed to pass any meaningful public safety legislation.

The attacks sharpen what is shaping up to be a particularly close race in the Sept. 11 Democratic primary for City Council president. The two are the front-runners in a four-way race, which includes City Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr. and Charles Ulysses Smith, a frequent candidate.

Rawlings-Blake will be walking a beat with police today at Baltimore Street and Highland Avenue and plans to take questions from members of the news media on her public safety platform. Her proposal focuses on targeted enforcement; creating more opportunities for youth through recreation centers, summer jobs and after-school programs; and providing more resources for drug treatment - themes similar to those discussed by other candidates, including Mayor Sheila Dixon. A list of Rawlings-Blake's council accomplishments on public safety provided by her campaign included no bills, two adopted resolutions and two resolutions from this year that are pending in committee.

For one initiative, a 2002 resolution that created the crime-prevention program "Operation Town Watch," Rawlings-Blake received a governor's award.

The campaign also pointed to Rawlings-Blake's efforts to push through Martin O'Malley's initiatives when he was mayor and she was council vice president, a traditional role of the council vice president.

The Rawlings-Blake campaign is trying to link Sarbanes both to violence in the state's boot camp program for juvenile offenders and the state's "Break the Cycle" drug-testing program. A participant in that program killed a Maryland state trooper after violating probation 72 times and being allowed to remain on the streets.

Both programs were in a 1998 crime strategy report that Sarbanes helped write for Townsend and the Parris N. Glendening administration.

Sarbanes said such connections are inaccurate because he did not oversee either program - juvenile boot camps were part of the Department of Juvenile Services, and "Break the Cycle" was under the purview of the Division of Parole and Probation.

"She is distorting and attempting to mislead the people about my own record in actually helping to reduce crime and helping neighborhoods," he said.

Sarbanes also served as a Townsend policy aide and later as her deputy chief of staff from 2000 until she left office in 2003.

Sarbanes does take credit for the HotSpot program, which the Rawlings-Blake campaign is describing as a failed initiative.

Begun in 1997 and overseen by Sarbanes' office, HotSpots took a broad approach to combating crime in targeted areas, teaming police officers, probation agents and community activists.

Hailed by Townsend and those who worked for her, the program was criticized by then-Mayor O'Malley and the city police chief, who at one point reassigned officers in the program.

"I didn't want the state telling me where to put officers," former police Commissioner Edward T. Norris, who oversaw the department at the time, said in a recent interview. "While I wasn't in favor of the HotSpots, I am a fan of Sarbanes."

O'Malley has called it a "narrowly crafted program" with "marginal results."

Rawlings-Blake's father, Del. Howard P. Rawlings, defended the program when Norris shifted the officers, saying the move was insensitive to community partnerships.

Sarbanes and other former Townsend aides attribute the criticism to politics, saying the program's policies were successful.

Studies show that violent crime declined in HotSpot areas between 1996 and 2000 by more than 30 percent, a rate more than twice the statewide average. In the city the rate was even higher.

Luke Clippinger, Rawlings-Blake's campaign manager, said he attributes the decreases to crime-fighting strategies begun by O'Malley when he was elected mayor in 1999.

"The HotSpots program was discredited," said Clippinger. "The implementation of that program led Baltimore into one of the most violent periods of its history."

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