A speech Monday night by Democratic mayoral nominee Martin O'Malley, in which he urged Baltimore police officers to adopt a tough stance on fighting crime, has two influential ministers worried that the candidate's rhetoric will encourage abuse.
"He was telling officers to go out and start zero tolerance now," said the Rev. Melvin B. Tuggle II, president of Clergy United for the Renewal of East Baltimore, a coalition of 260 east-side churches. "We are not going to tolerate zero tolerance. It's not going to work here."
Tuggle said that improved community relations could be endangered under an administration advocating "zero tolerance."
Arnold W. Howard, pastor of Enon Baptist Church in West Baltimore, said he was troubled by O'Malley telling officers that flawed politics had stymied their efforts to sweep corners clear of drug dealers.
"From a community standpoint, police have all the power and have had all the power," the former head of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance said. "To say they have been handcuffed is preposterous. This appears they are being given carte blanche."
During his speech, O'Malley emphasized increased officer accountability. He repeatedly told the officers who packed the Fraternal Order of Police union hall in Hampden that he would back their actions only in return for honesty.
"I need your help," he said. "We can't do this unless the citizens we police trust us."
In an interview last night, he said he is "looking forward to talking with the ministers and addressing their legitimate fears."
His opponent, Republican nominee David F. Tufaro, called zero tolerance "a buzzword for dealing with a complicated issue." He will address officers at the union hall next month.
Tufaro is proposing that citizens have input into the types of infractions police should target. "If you set the agenda at the community level, you have less of a chance of creating a conflict with police," he said.
O'Malley won this month's Democratic primary election with a strong crime-fighting platform, arguing that crime has not fallen fast or far enough under Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and departing Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier.
The candidate promised to close the 10 worst open-air drug markets within his first six months in office. He advocates a policing strategy, dubbed "zero tolerance," which targets virtually every crime, no matter how trivial, in an effort to prevent more serious offenses.
Proponents argue that the strategy has helped reduce crime and homicides in many cities across the country. But it also has led to accusations of brutality and abuse targeted at minority neighborhoods, particularly in New York.
Frazier has long rejected the strategy, arguing that crime has declined under his watch without measures he terms Draconian.
"We have seen where New York has gone in terms of civil rights violations, and I'm not going to take this department there," he said.
O'Malley maintains a balance can be struck by using fair-minded but tough officers to deal with everything from loiterers to drug dealers.
"You have been told that effective policing is the same as brutal policing," the candidate told officers during his speech. "I know, and you know, that they are two different things."
Sheila Dixon, the Democratic nominee for City Council president and an O'Malley supporter, said the ministers are exaggerating their fears.
"Folks are stirring up frustration because of the way politics ended up in this election," she said.
Dixon called upon "those ministers who have a problem with zero tolerance" to be more responsible in their neighborhoods. "I know of churches where there are drug dealers standing right in front of the doors."
Howard, from Enon Baptist Church, said a great deal of confusion surrounds the definition of zero tolerance. He said many in his neighborhood equate the term with wholesale roundups of people for no apparent reason.
"Certainly any community needs good policing," Howard said, "but not unchecked policing. We are going to be looking at this with a fine-toothed comb. The rhetoric is one thing. The actions are another."