One question seemed to be on the mind this past week of everyone who lives or works in Baltimore: Is the city safe?
Last week the city was shocked by a spate of kidnappings from parking garages, allegedly committed by a group of four teen-agers. A 37-year-old Catonsville man, Vitalis V. Pilius, was slain and two other victims were stuffed into car trunks. The crimes have dominated radio talk shows and coffee-break conversations.
Then on Tuesday, Bishop L. Robinson, public safety and correctional services secretary, said violent crime has so overloaded Maryland's law enforcement system that it is "close to gridlock."
And the next day, the city's Fraternal Order of Police began a controversial radio advertising campaign which claims that every six minutes the city experiences "a serious or violent crime -- robbery, murder, rape" -- an "estimated 240 serious crimes each day."
Some city residents, especially those who live in high-crime neighborhoods, agree with the FOP's premise that crime is out of control.
"Crime is outrageous," said Ralph Fisher, who lives "right in the midst of it" in the 2100 block of Callow Avenue in West Baltimore.
"I have to watch everything that goes on around me. And hopefully, I'll get out of the way before something bad happens to me," he said.
Edward Buxton, a student at the University of Baltimore who has a job delivering pizza in North Baltimore, said he has noticed on his rounds that people are nervous.
"I've noticed an overtone that everybody is uptight now," he said. "They're not only less willing to tip, but they're not friendly. They're just more conscious of their safety. And I don't blame them."
But other Baltimoreans have cried foul, saying that the well-publicized crime was an isolated incident and that the city's image is being tarnished unfairly.
"I think the city gets a pretty bad rap sometimes," said Lois Garey, executive director of the HarBel Community Organization. daughter lives in Columbia and I worry about her more now than when she lived in the city."
And recent events have been especially bad news for those whose job it is to promote the city.
"It's taken 10 years for Baltimore to rebuild itself into the city it is now and to have this happen," said Alan Villaverde, vice president and general manager of the Stouffer Harborplace Hotel and president of the Maryland Hotel/Motel Association.
"Granted, it will only be for a short time, but why advertise it like that?" he said, referring to the police union's ad campaign. "If it's done for shock value and to make a point, then the point is being made. But I think the consequences for making that point . . . could be hurtful to a very fragile business, which is tourism. And what good does that do?"
Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said that when he heard about the kidnapping incidents, "I was pretty angry about the whole thing."
Mr. Schmoke said he called Police Commissioner Edward V. Woods after hearing of the kidnappings and murder and found that the department had already contacted the owners of downtown parking garages, offering them suggestions on how to step-up their security. Downtown security patrols were also placed on special alert and instructed to increase patrols both inside and outside parking garages.
But he stressed that this one incident is not an indication that the downtown area is unsafe.
"For me, I know downtown is one of the safer areas of the city," he said.
Anyone listening to the police union advertisement might reach a different conclusion, not just about downtown but anywhere in the city. The ad features the sound of a clock ticking, with a voice-over saying: "Count to six. Six. Six minutes. In Baltimore, six minutes has special meaning . . . The politicians know the facts. But they're doing nothing. We're your police . . . We're doing our best to protect you. But we can't anymore. . . ."
The radio spot also asserts that the Schmoke administration's community policing plan will not work because the police department doesn't have enough officers.
"Call the mayor and your Council member," the ad continues. "Don't cut police funding. Improve conditions now. Because six minutes in Baltimore could be a lifetime."
"We have to tell the truth, we have to be honest," said Don W. Helms, president of Baltimore City Lodge No. 3 Fraternal Order of Police.
But Mr. Schmoke calls the ads "irresponsible."
"I think what's driving its campaign is more the internal politics of the FOP than a legitimate concern about the welfare of this city's residents," he said.
"The president's got an election coming up and I know he's under a lot of pressure because under these tough economic times, he hasn't been able to deliver like others have under better economic times."
The radio spot is provocative, and Mr. Schmoke said that will not help solve any problems the city faces. "It makes me wonder if more of their members lived in the city, if they would take this same approach to the problem," he said.
Mr. Schmoke acknowledged that violent crime is a problem, not just in this city, but across the country.
"The last two years have been the most violent in the history of the United States," he said. The recently announced community policing plan, which will decentralize the department and place more officers in neighborhoods, is the city's response to violent crime, he said.
But community policing can't work without hiring more officers, Mr. Helms said.
"The only way you're going to fight crime is to put more police officers on the street," he said. "If citizens want you to fight crime, they're going to have to pay for it."
And others argue that violent crime will continue unless the social and economic conditions that produce criminals are addressed.
"It was a heinous crime [the Pilius slaying]. It points out just how vicious and mean-spirited people can become," said the Rev. Dr. Norman Handy Sr., president of the Harlem Park Community Association and pastor of Unity United Methodist Church. But he added that it is up to the community to address the social conditions that cause crime.
"I think the danger is that we look for individual leaders to do what the rest of us refuse to do. For instance, in Harlem Park, the mayor is not responsible for drug dealers standing on our corners," Dr. Handy said.
"These children are coming from our homes, they're standing on our corners," he said.
"We have to make not simply our mayor, we have to make ourselves accountable for what's going on around us."
Police commercial transcript
"Count to six. Six. Six minutes. In Baltimore, six minutes has special meaning. In Baltimore, a serious or violent crime -- robbery, murder, rape -- occurs almost every six minutes. An estimated 240 serious crimes each day. The politicians know the facts. But they're doing nothing. We're your police. Member of the Baltimore Fraternal Order of Police. We're doing our best to protect you. But we can't anymore. The politicians? They talk about community plicing. But there aren't enough police to make it work, Conditions are getting worse. We, your police, want you safe. But we need your help. Call the Mayor, and your councilmember. Don't cut police funding. Improve conditions now. Because six minutes in Baltimore (tick, tick effect) could be a lifetime. Paid for by the Baltimre Fraternal Order of Police. If our city can't keep you safe, what can it do?"