Ehrlich Ads Hammer O'Malley on Crime

By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 30, 2006

The Acura Legend rested against a telephone pole in a Baltimore alley, its headlights dim, four bullet holes in its door. Inside, police reported, a man was slumped over the center console, bleeding heavily from his nose and mouth.

In a city that remains one of the nation's deadliest, the killing of Kevin Sharpe was sadly unremarkable but for this: On Aug. 21, he became Baltimore's 176th homicide victim of 2006, one more than the goal for the entire year that Martin O'Malley embraced when he became mayor seven years ago.

Now, as he runs for governor and his record on crime becomes fodder for campaign ads, O'Malley (D) points to many signs of progress, including a significant reduction in violent crime that has helped lure billions in new residential and commercial development as well as a steady stream of tourism to Charm City.

But the mayor's goal for reducing the most violent of crimes -- homicide -- to no more than 175 a year has remained stubbornly elusive. The closest Baltimore has come was in 2002, three years into O'Malley's tenure, when 253 killings were logged. Since then, progress has stalled. This year, police say, the city is on pace to match last year's total of 269.

Although significantly lower than the 300-plus homicides a year that were recorded in the 1990s, the murder count nonetheless remains a political liability.

"He made a promise that he couldn't keep and in retrospect probably shouldn't have made," said Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), whom O'Malley is trying to unseat in November. "The murder rate in Baltimore is awful, and it's an embarrassment to the state of Maryland."

Ehrlich's campaign began airing a television ad yesterday that knocks the mayor for his stewardship on public safety, citing the failed homicide goal and a frequent change in police leadership. O'Malley has appointed four police commissioners during his tenure, a rate of turnover some say has sapped the department's morale and undercut efforts to fight crime, including homicides. Also, radio ads this week decried what critics call overzealous policing in Baltimore.

"One of the downsides of declaring goals . . . is that you run the risk of being skewered when you don't hit those goals," O'Malley said in an interview. "But it's been our experience that the downside is far outweighed by the number of lives we have saved."

O'Malley was also quick to add that he controls only the city's 3,000-officer police force, not state and federal prosecutors. He said he "naively" believed in 1999 that others would be more committed to his goal. Aides say that state and federal police and drug-treatment aid to Baltimore fell after 2002.

Ehrlich's staff said that state aid to the city's criminal justice system overall increased.

Leadership at City Hall can make a difference in a community's homicide count, criminologists say, but it is certainly not the only variable. Patterns of poverty, the drug trade and gang presence also factor in.

Nationally, homicide rates have fallen substantially since the 1980s, when the emergence of crack cocaine sparked bloody turf wars. But the number of killings across the country rose 3.4 percent last year, according to FBI statistics.

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