What Does 'Zero Tolerance' Mean?

Our View: Mayor Dixon Should Have A Uniform Policy For Staff Facing Charges

June 19, 2009

Demaune Millard, the chief of staff to Mayor Sheila Dixon who is the subject of two domestic violence complaints from a fellow city employee, helped extricate his boss from a tricky situation Thursday when he took what city officials say was a planned leave of absence.

Ms. Dixon insisted when news first broke about the accusations - and counter-charges filed by Mr. Millard - that she has "zero tolerance" for domestic abuse and is "deeply concerned about any accusations about domestic violence." But she did not back that stance up with any action; Mr. Millard continued working by her side, much to the dismay of anti-domestic violence advocacy groups.

Now that he's gone, at least temporarily, the political pressure on the mayor may subside. But it will not absolve her of the responsibility for making sure her "zero tolerance" philosophy is backed up by an actual, enforceable policy.

The facts in the current situation are in dispute. Elizabeth C. Smith, a liquor board commissioner who had previously dated Mr. Millard, filed charges against him June 7, saying he grabbed, threatened and punched her during an Inner Harbor cruise the day before. She also charged him with punching her in the face during a previous argument in April 2008. Mr. Millard filed counter-charges June 8, claiming she had grabbed and tried to punch him during the argument on the cruise ship.

Ms. Dixon's response: "This is a private matter - I want to give them that privacy to move through that process as we move forward." But when charges are filed, and both people are public officials, it ceases to be a private matter. Even more so given that an assistant city attorney convened a meeting with Ms. Smith after she filed the charges. (The mayor's office and her attorney say she was not pressured to drop the matter.) Like it or not, charges of wrongdoing by members of Ms. Dixon's staff, even those stemming from personal relationships, reflect on the mayor, and her reaction to them needs to be consistent and reflect her values.

Contrast the handling of this situation with the way she dealt with allegations of inappropriate behavior against her former spokesman, Anthony McCarthy. She suspended him a day after learning of the allegations, which were never made public and never resulted in any charges. Even after Baltimore County police ended their investigation, Mr. McCarthy didn't get his job back.

Or there's the handling by the previous mayoral administration of domestic abuse charges against former Police Chief Kevin Clark. He was suspended during an investigation, even though his fiancee publicly insisted that he had done nothing wrong. He didn't get his job back either.

The lack of a concrete policy by the mayor leaves open the possibility that people are treated differently depending on who they are, whether the mayor believes the charges are credible, or whether she simply finds them to be politically inconvenient. To demonstrate true concern and to be fair to all involved, the mayor should establish a policy of suspending employees from their duties while criminal charges are investigated. That may seem harsh in certain cases, but it would be less so if it were uniformly applied.

Ms. Dixon has told us that she will not tolerate domestic violence, but her actions so far have not proved that she means it.

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