No honeymoon period for new Pr. George's leader

By Mike DeBonis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 13, 2011; 9:46 PM

Prince George's County can't catch a break. County Executive Rushern L. Baker III sure can't, anyway.

Baker had a plan for last week. The Cheverly Democrat would head out to Cambridge for the pre-session Maryland Association of Counties confab, where he'd press the flesh and lobby with his colleagues to keep Annapolis from rolling its budgetary problems downhill. Then he'd roll out his proposal to clean up ethics in county government for the Sunday papers, naming members of his integrity board and a package of legislative proposals for the General Assembly to take up.

But Baker was thrown off message, and the people of Prince George's were again reminded that the county's problems - and its image - defy easy repairs. Thanks to the November arrests of predecessor Jack B. Johnson and his wife, Leslie, along with several police officers on corruption charges, Baker's early weeks have been consumed with patching the county's pay-to-play reputation. But a spate of killings has reminded residents and the region that Prince George's also has a violent-crime problem, too.

The sheer numerology explains what's turned a statistical aberration into a crisis. On Monday, there were 10 homicides in 10 days. Then 11 in 11. At press time, it was 13 in 13. A trend like that makes the awful math awfully easy: 365 deaths for the year.

In a county that had fewer than 100 killings last year, according to the Prince George's police, no one expects it to quadruple its body count in 12 months - especially after death tolls have been in steady decline for five years.

But a killing a day is hard to ignore. Especially when it's not even summer, the traditional high season for street violence. Especially when the first slaying is on New Year's Day.

"Many people think of January 1 as a metaphorical clean slate," said Sgt. Michelle Reedy, a police spokeswoman.

Prince George's, so in need of a clean slate, hasn't gotten one this year.

And, to Baker's frustration, a crime wave - like a record unemployment or a historic snowstorm - is a challenge that tends to resist a public executive's best efforts.

Baker has deployed what few tools he has in his toolbox. On the public relations side, he left the Association of Counties meeting early, high-tailing it back from the Eastern Shore. He went on WTOP radio and answered questions about the crisis. He met with community leaders in the inside-the-Beltway neighborhoods most affected by the violence.

On the policing side, Interim Police Chief Mark Magaw said Thursday that federal agents would be "embedded" into county homicide squads, while about 135 officers from the Maryland State Police, Prince George's Sheriff's Department and several of the county's municipal police departments would join forces to "saturate" high-risk areas.

The killings have forced Baker and the police to walk a fine line between acknowledging the urgency of the situation and tamping down public concern about crimes that have little in common except connections to the drug trade.

Hence the comment from an assistant police chief, who told The Washington Post that it's "important for folks to know that the lifestyle of these victims has greatly contributed to where they are in life." Translation: If you're not a gangbanger, you've got little to worry about.

But the issue raised by the slayings isn't merely public safety, but the county's image and demographic reality.

The county has been on the downside of a trend now more than a decade in the making. Poverty and the drug trade have migrated from the District, from intense concentrators of urban ills like Shipley Terrace or the East Capitol Dwellings, to the garden apartment houses of Capitol Heights, Suitland and Oxon Hill, where most of the new year's killings have taken place.

Drug violence knows no borders, and even reputations can bleed across frontiers. A little of the District's old "murder capital" rap rubbed off on the county Sunday, when a freshman member of the House of Representatives, Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho), appeared on NBC's Meet the Press to discuss the Tucson killings. "Washington, D.C., last week had seven murders, and they have some of the . . . strictest gun laws in the United States," he told a national audience.

The District had three killings, in fact, only slightly above the previous year's average. Labrador, who apologized for the faux pas, had conflated the city's slayings with the county's.

While working to improve the county's reputation on crime and ethics, Baker has had to fight to maintain one of the county's few bragging points. On Friday, he was set to meet with Wall Street bond raters in New York, in hopes of keeping the county's AAA rating.

Meanwhile, the homicide uproar continues, and Rushern Baker might well be wondering, "When do I get my break?"

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