WITH THE NUMBER of killings so far this year ahead of 1999's hideous pace, does Baltimore have the will to stop the bloodshed and anarchy on its streets?
Or are Baltimoreans comfortable with matters as they are, even though the city is among the nation's most violent and African-American residents are 11 times more likely to be felled by a bullet than whites?
Last year, it seemed voters rendered an unmistakable verdict on these questions, overwhelmingly electing as mayor the only candidate who ran on a tough law-and-order platform.
Lately, though, the forces who opposed Martin O'Malley have regrouped. United in their opposition to the mayor's crime-fighting plan, they are hoping to nullify the election by splitting the inter-racial coalition that brought the white councilman to power.
A war of wills is being waged on Baltimore streets.
It is being fought on Pennsylvania Avenue, a once-prominent retail hub, now a site for drug trafficking and prostitution.
Before he resigned, Police Commissioner Ronald L. Daniel targeted the vicinity of the troubled Avenue Market for an all-out cleanup. He insisted that drug dealers, prostitutes and loiterers be shooed away. They were.
More recently, though, as Acting Commissioner Edward T. Norris has come under strident criticism for tough police tactics, things have begun returning to normal. Prostitutes are back along Pennsylvania Avenue; so are drug-dealing loiterers.
Is this what members of the City Council want? Do they want to bring back the dazed zoo at the 10 notorious drug corners that were cleared just weeks ago?
There should be no place in Baltimore for police belligerence that ignores civil liberties or lacks respect for law-abiding citizens. But if decision-makers want a safer city, they must back up tough policing within those limits.
Crackdowns will produce inevitable clashes with those who think hanging out at drug corners is their constitutional right. In these conflicts, too, the mayor and the police must be supported. Failure to do so will guarantee that violence continues to strangle this city.