Debating Violence

Four experts discuss solutions for the city's murder spree

Confronting Crime

September 09, 2007|By Dan Rodricks | Dan Rodricks,Sun Columnist

Crime - particularly the chronic violent crime that has become synonymous with Baltimore -- is the No. 1 issue on voters' minds as they head to the polls for the primary election.

With less than a week to go before Baltimoreans pick a new mayor and City Council, The Sun presents a conversation, moderated by columnist Dan Rodricks, with four people who have wrestled with crime and violence in different ways -- Paul Blair Jr., president of the Baltimore Fraternal Order of Police and a 38-year veteran of the force; Marvin "Doc" Cheatham, president of the Baltimore chapter of the NAACP, which recently launched an anti-violence effort that included posting a current citywide homicide toll in its front window and calling for residents and businesses to do the same; Haydee M. Rodriguez, executive director of the Governor's Commission on Hispanic Affairs, who agreed to take part in the discussion as a private citizen after her brother was beaten last month by robbers on a city street; and Hathaway Ferebee, executive director of Safe & Sound Campaign, an organization devoted to improving the health and safety of Baltimore children. Do you think we are obsessed with the homicides? Do we invest too much time and concern in this? I ask because there's a flow of life to Baltimore that's healthy and normal; thousands of people just live life here, never touched by all this violence.

RODRIGUEZ: Obsessed? Absolutely not. I would say we're not paying enough attention. One murder a day is too many for a city in a First World country in a nation that touts itself as the richest in the world.

BLAIR: In January, when a city police officer, Troy Chesly, was murdered after doing his tour, a father of five, the next day the story was not about Troy but about Cal [Ripken] being picked for the Hall of Fame. Nothing against Cal. But that was the lead story on the radio stations -- not about a police officer. So there's no sustained outrage, no urgency?

BLAIR: These are human lives. I don't care whether they're the drug dealers trying to get out of the business, or whatever. It's still a human life, still somebody grieving. And ... it's accepted in this town.

CHEATHAM: The thing that really troubles me is no one seems to really care until it knocks on their door. At Baker and Gilmore -- I've done three rallies in the same area. The third one we did, one woman who walked by us the first time, who didn't care, it was her child that got killed about six years later. My message to them was: What are you waiting for? Are you waiting until murder knocks on your door to get outraged?

FEREBEE: I think there is an obsession with the numbers and it's the wrong focus. Our leadership deals with the problem of the killings and not the fundamental problems that create the environment that puts people in the position to kill or be killed. It's very frustrating to hear what I consider to be almost meaningless discussion in the political debates right now about what we're going to do about crime. ... The outrage should not be because a number is growing, but because of the way we withhold opportunity from people in this community. Are you blaming murders on a lack of jobs?

FEREBEE: I'm blaming the lack of public policy that guides how our public dollars -- a city budget of $2.9 billion -- are spent. Let's say this year we're really concerned with how many third-graders don't read. The budget is put forth, and we say that this year we are going to raise the literacy rate of third-graders to 80 percent, and we can do that because we know exactly what needs to happen and we have enough programs. The budget has to articulate that.

CHEATHAM: If we're saying crime and education are the two major issues affecting our communities, then our budget should reflect those priorities. In Baltimore City it does not. And look at the number of drug addicts we have -- 60,000, [related to] a significant number of shootings, death, crime. And yet we have no major [treatment] facility that can even handle 10 percent of them.

RODRIGUEZ: I agree. We have had a huge disinvestment in social programs for our cities over the last 40 years and what we see now is a result of that. ... There's a correlation between poverty and crime, lack of education and lack of opportunity. ... We have the solutions but we don't have the ire -- the ire that is in kids when they beat someone up -- that we need to ensure that the resources are spent on our communities. I don't think it's about politicians.

FEREBEE: I blame the politicians. ...

CHEATHAM: I would say where we are losing the greatest leadership is in the faith-based community. You don't hear [stop the violence] as a message on a regular basis. Paul and [the police] -- they can't get us out of this. They can help, but the community has to turn this thing around.

RODRIGUEZ: In the meantime, sadly, innocent people will continue to pay -- innocent people like my brother.

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