"Brandon Mullens, 19 ... Eric Carroll, 24 ... James Gillyard, 37 " Rashida Simmons' voice doesn't quiver anymore when she reads the names and ages of people murdered in Baltimore in the past week.
Unlike most American government bodies that begin with a solemn prayer and patriotic Pledge of Allegiance, Baltimore City Council meetings start with the chilling ritual initiated a year ago to accentuate the city's perpetual bloodshed.
"Hugh Jackson, 17 Wayne Rabb, 15 Nelson Holland, 22 " The duty of reading the names falls to the 23-year-old receptionist for City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III. Simmons grew up in the city's Auchentoroly Terrace section and feels the sting of the murders, especially when she reads ages of victims younger than she is, which is often.
Of the 31 names read during the past month -- an average of a killing a day -- none of the victims was older than 43. During the past year, Simmons has read 362 names of murdered Baltimore residents.
"Half of these people are my age or younger," Simmons said. "Sometimes there are just so many names."
As much as the name reading serves as a reminder of city carnage, it also stands as a weekly political jab at city leaders.
The first reading occurred in January 1997, shortly after the fatal shooting of James "Boo Boo" Smith III. James died in a barbershop near Hollins Market from a stray bullet that struck him while he was waiting for a haircut on his third birthday.
Bell and Councilman Martin O'Malley, a former prosecutor from the city's 3rd District, wield the weekly names to vent their frustration with Baltimore's crime-fighting plan. Unlike cities such New York, Los Angeles and New Orleans, where the murder rate has plummeted, Baltimore's remains fairly constant, with more than 300 murders a year since 1989.
"John Jones, 7 months Dante Powers, 18 Curtis Young, 35 "
The names also scroll across the city's cable Channel 21, keeping pressure on Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier. Bell and O'Malley want the city to adopt the "zero tolerance" stance taken in other cities, where even the most minor offenses are prosecuted strictly.
Prosecuting career criminals committing lesser crimes, such as assault or shoplifting, can prevent future killings, the councilmen say.
Zero tolerance debate
Schmoke and Frazier don't fully support zero tolerance, instead taking a la carte pieces of the plan and calling it "limited tolerance."
The commissioner adopted Crimestac, a computer and mapping system that pinpoints arrests geographically to locate hot spots. During the past four years, he has also increased street patrols, raids on gun toters and drug dealers and captures of criminals sought on warrants. Frazier has also expanded the city's Police Athletic League.
His latest effort involves tracking gang activity to pre-empt murder strikes. The steps have worked. Overall city crime dropped last year by 11 percent and has fallen 26 percent since Frazier took over as commissioner. Shootings in the city have dropped by 60 percent in recent years, and Frazier believes a drop in killing will soon follow.
On March 6, police arrested 29 people suspected of drug dealing and shootings in the Cherry Hill and Brooklyn sections of the city.
"You have to work in your environment," Frazier said, staring down at 10 guns recovered in the raids. "We made a policy two years ago to focus on guns and gun violence."
Supporters of Frazier's tactics criticize the zero tolerance approach sought by O'Malley and Bell. Locking up criminals for minor offenses costs money through increased police patrols and jail expenses, in a city where slightly more than half of the black males between the ages of 18 and 34 are already in jail, on probation or facing charges, according to Baltimore City Health Commissioner Dr. Peter Beilenson.
And Maryland jails are already at capacity.
L "You don't need to stick any more in there," Beilenson said.
Drugs and rehabilitation
The solution lies in rehabilitation, Beilenson said. The city is home to 60,000 drug addicts, one of every 10 residents. Locking up criminals costs the government $20,000 per person a year, while rehabilitation requires spending an average of $5,000, Beilenson said. The city recently increased drug rehabilitation funding from $14 million to $30 million.
Many of the murder victims are caught in the cross fire of gang warfare over drugs, Beilenson said, making young black males the city's most endangered group. The average city killer arrested last year was 18. Eight of the 31 names Simmons read in the one-month period from Feb. 2 to March 3 were teen-agers, including one youth who was shot to death by a stray bullet while he sat in a van at a traffic light on his way to church.
The city homicide rate has remained constant because teens are relying on big guns fired repeatedly at point-blank range, trademark assassinations from less than 2 feet away, Beilenson said. When they shoot, they don't miss.
"Rasheed Harris, 19 Jerry Walley, 18 Tina Marie Poole, 19 "
Despite the drop in overall city crime, city leaders haven't had much success denting the murder rate. For the first time last year, Baltimore murders exceeded by eight the 301 murders in Washington -- once known as the murder capital of the nation.
"Kenneth Davis Jr., 17 Rotanwa Dickerson, 25 Tyrone Boldin, 29 "
Although city leaders boast of the drop in overall crime, critics say the resilient murder rate makes Baltimore one of America's ++ deadliest cities.
Bell acknowledges that reading the names of murdered citizens each week isn't great publicity for a city promoting itself as a tourist destination. But unless the homicide rate is reduced, tourism will suffer, he said.
"The perception is there. We did not create this problem," Bell said. "These are not names, statistics or numbers, these are real people.
"These are members of somebody's family and we will not be satisfied."
"Will Lawson, 29 Marquin Bradley, 22 Rodney Jones, 43 "
Schmoke lauds the council for trying to humanize the problem. But the 10-year mayor who has watched drugs push the city crime rate higher since he took office in 1987 also feels the political slap.
"It is important to get beyond statistics to let people know that it's real people with real families," Schmoke said. "I just hope that the council will work with us and the commissioner to come up with effective solutions."
Henry Brownstein, a criminal justice professor at the University of Baltimore, wrote a book last year documenting homicides in America, "The Rise and Fall of a Violent Crime Wave." Brownstein has never heard of the name-reading practice in other cities, he said.
"It clearly has some political purpose rather than some practical purpose," Brownstein said. "The police can't operate alone. There needs to be some community involvement in getting to these kids."
When will the reading of the city's murder roll end?
Not anytime soon. Last week, Simmons announced two more names of citizens killed during the week of March 2 to March 9. And City Council members such as Bell and O'Malley vow to keep the ritual going until a significant and steady drop in city murders is visible. Last year, the rate of solved city murders FTC dropped by 5 percent, equaling the national average of 65 percent. Police attribute the drop to witnesses' fear of coming forward in drug-related killings.
Council members can't get beyond the fact that other cities are doing what Baltimore can't seem to do.
"You've got to agitate to get some sort of change," O'Malley said. "Is it political? Yeah, it's political. It's life-and-death political."
'Maybe it will help'
"Paul Smith, 36 Wayne Graves, 21 Craig Williams, 39 "
When reading the names started to get easier for Simmons, it bothered her. Then she received calls from two family members of victims who saw the names read and scrolled on Channel 21.
"People call and say, 'Thanks for reading my son or daughter's name,' " Simmons said. "If people start thinking about it, maybe it will help."
"Sidney Young, 31 Arnold Loney, 24 Robert Bennett, 24 "
Pub Date: 3/16/98