Rhonda Eldridge had pulled an all-nighter July 27 to pack. She, her husband, Anthony Johnson, and her four children were to leave that weekend for a four-day vacation in Ocean City.
At 2 a.m. a neighbor came to get her. Just a few feet away from her home in Northeast Baltimore's Belair-Edison neighborhood, she said, her husband lay in his car, slumped over the steering wheel with a bullet to his head. From a window of the house, Eldridge's oldest daughter watched as police and paramedics surrounded the scene.
Eldridge's story was one of several Sen. Catherine Pugh brought up at a news conference Saturday afternoon on her plans to fight violent crime in the city if she becomes mayor.
Speaking in the Loch Raven neighborhood, Pugh criticized Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's plans to hire 300 more police officers. She argued that the mayor should be making better use of the officers that the city already has.
"I don't want to wait for your new budget where you want to add 300 police officers to the department because it's not about additional police, it's about redeployment," she said. "We have to get some of those police officers who are at their desks and get them out on the streets."
Rawlings-Blake's campaign swiftly hit back against Pugh's argument that more cops aren't needed in Baltimore streets. The mayor has pledged to hire 300 more police and implement 30 more smart security cameras by next year.
"What we've been hearing from residents is they want more officers," said campaign spokeswoman Keiana Page. "To say we've got too many cops or don't need any more is not realistic."
Pugh also criticized the decrease in funding for recreational centers and said she would also push for improved rehabilitation for ex offenders.
Pugh, a West Baltimore Democrat who has been in the Maryland Senate since 2007, is challenging Rawlings-Blake in next month's primary along with former Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors Vice President Joseph T. "Jody" Landers, former city planning director Otis Rolley, Clerk of Court Frank M. Conaway Sr., and nurse Wilton Wilson.
Pugh's other opponents described the state senator's plans as sensible, if unoriginal.
Rolley is also proposing to work with community leaders and the clergy to offer young people safe recreational activities and to reduce recidivism among ex offenders, said campaign spokesman Dan Fee. He has also expressed support for continuing to target the worst offenders.
Landers said he plans to hire fewer cops and maintain funding for recreational centers. Instead of tapping an already overwhelmed private sector for funding for public projects, schools and public buildings that sit idle should be used as for community centers and for after-school programs, he said.
He also questioned Pugh's plans to redeploy police officers because that's a matter that should be handled by the police commissioner, not the mayor. Landers said that while it's important to help ex-offenders find jobs, it's equally pressing to improve access to drug treatment centers.
"We can't talk about all this redeployment because one of the root problems of this crime rate is the drug trade in Baltimore," he said.
Though crime has declined in recent years in Baltimore — homicides are at their lowest level since the late 1980s and shootings are down from last year — the city remains among the most dangerous in the country. The Democratic candidates all support keeping the city's current crime fighting strategy, which was put in place in 2007 by former Mayor Sheila Dixon and consists of targeting the most violent offenders.
Pugh said she'd announced plans to canvass in Loch Raven weeks ago and was contacted by residents who complained they didn't see enough cops on their streets.
"I'm concerned about every single area of this city that has a crime problem. But I want to increase the viability of the neighborhoods that are safe and then I want to raise up the neighborhoods that are unstable," she said. "This is a fairly healthy neighborhood. We can't afford any resident losses here."
Pugh also said she would keep recreational and community centers open with funding from the city's philanthropic, business and faith sector instead of the city coffers. The city's recreational center budget was slashed by $500,000 earlier this year.
Page said the cuts to recreational center funding were tied to budget shortfalls in general, but said the mayor was also planning on looking to the private sector for help.
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