Who Will Make Baltimore Safe?

By Douglas M. Duncan
Thursday, March 23, 2006

Too often in Maryland politics we see jurisdictional squabbling and turf battles. We see fights between the Washington suburbs and the Baltimore region, or the Eastern Shore and Western Maryland. Such squabbles are not productive; in fact, they are roadblocks to progress. But one thing is clear: All residents of Maryland have a stake in our state's largest city. We cannot have a healthy Maryland until we have a healthy Baltimore. And when it comes to crime, Baltimore is not healthy.

In 2003 Baltimore was the second-most dangerous big city in America. Today it remains so. Per capita homicide rates have actually increased since 2000. Baltimore is six times as deadly as New York and three times as deadly as Los Angeles. In 2004 only three major cities reported increases in homicides: Detroit, St. Louis and Baltimore. While other cities have had historic declines in homicides and violent crime, Baltimore has not had similar success. And while there has been progress in the Inner Harbor, far too many neighborhoods are still racked with crime.

The mayor of Baltimore can't seem to crack the problem. He's on his fourth police commissioner, and the police department itself is dealing with a major scandal. The mayor openly spars with prosecutors when they need to be working together. And sadly, politics are being put ahead of people. The Baltimore Sun recently reported that the crime numbers being kept by the city may not be accurate. A WBAL-TV series in Baltimore revealed dramatic instances of crimes not being reported. Solid, sound information is the bedrock of crime fighting and prevention.

But instead of solutions, we're seeing political posturing. Mayor Martin O'Malley repeatedly refers to a 40 percent decline in violent crime. Independent experts say it may be more like 23 percent. While campaigning in Montgomery County, O'Malley claimed it was 50 percent. He labels calls for independent audits as political stunts. But somehow O'Malley's 1999 audit of crime -- conducted by consultants he hired -- is considered by the mayor to be above reproach. Some, however, question whether it was used to overstate the reduction in crime.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is calling for an audit -- but only of five jurisdictions, which gives the appearance of politicization in an election year. While this is a step in the right direction, a statewide audit is the only way to get an accurate assessment of crime in Maryland.

Who's thinking about the people of Baltimore?

Given all the recent reports that have come out about the suspect crime numbers, several members of the General Assembly have introduced a bill for a comprehensive, independent audit of crime across the state, not just in five jurisdictions. I urge swift passage of this bill. The first step in solving a problem is assessing the problem.

I recently stood with Baltimore's top prosecutor and other leaders and released a comprehensive plan to reduce crime across the state. It calls for 1,000 more police officers on the streets, but that's just a start. It calls for more drug treatment and the expansion of currently successful drug courts. It calls for better pre-release services and expanding Operation Restart, which helps put people's lives back on track when they get out of jail. There are new laws to crack down on gangs and combat sexual predators. And, perhaps most important, the plan would commit resources to community crime task forces. These task forces would bring together law enforcement, community groups and other agencies in Maryland to target efforts in high-crime areas. Sometimes a housing agency can shut down a crack house faster than the police can. Or the health department can shut down a restaurant that is also a front for crime faster than the courts. By pooling community knowledge and efforts, we can improve communities faster.

It's a blueprint for the first step in achieving a healthy Baltimore, and a healthy Maryland.

Some have said I am engaged in "Baltimore bashing." They need to ask themselves who is doing the real disservice to the good people of Baltimore: those who talk honestly and openly about the problems and lay out strategies to solve them, or those who engage in constant political posturing and continue to describe rosy scenarios while people still live in fear?

I believe education is the long-term solution to reducing crime and improving the quality of life in Maryland. But families cannot be asked to wait for safer neighborhoods. Children deserve safe streets today.

The writer is Montgomery County executive and a candidate for the Democratic nomination for governor of Maryland.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company