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Md. gun crimes effort debated


Three years ago, federal prosecutors in Richmond, Va., started targeting gun-toting criminals as a way to curb crime, and they racked up some impressive results. Murders dropped by almost half, and police say bad guys virtually quit carrying guns.

In Baltimore, federal prosecutors launched a similar effort in 1994. But the city's annual homicide count has not fallen below 300 in the past decade, prompting critics - most vocally, U.S. Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. - to argue that authorities here should copy Richmond's playbook.

The distinction between the two federal programs is a fine one. But it has opened up a full-scale battle, pitting the Republican congressman against the Clinton-appointed U.S. attorney, Lynne A. Battaglia, and raising fundamental questions about what role the federal courts should play in tackling street crime.

Under Richmond's "Project Exile," authorities send nearly all city gun crimes through federal court, where offenders typically face harsher punishment.

In Baltimore, Battaglia launched "Project Disarm" during her first year as U.S. attorney with a different mission. Her office would go after the city's worst criminals caught with weapons instead of every gun offender eligible for federal prosecution.

Because of that distinction, the two programs have seen different results. While Richmond prosecutors have pursued far more cases under Exile, Baltimore's Disarm cases, on average, have resulted in longer sentences, statistics from both offices show.

"The result of the Disarm program is we've taken significant actors off the streets of Baltimore, and people feel safer," Battaglia said in a recent interview.

The dispute over the dueling gun programs has sharply escalated in recent months, spilling over to the local Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms office and drawing the attention of congressional investigators.

The most recent development came Tuesday, when a spokesman for the House Judiciary Committee said the ATF had closed an internal affairs review of its Baltimore office. That probe cleared Special Agent in Charge Larry D. Stewart, who said in a sworn statement he was targeted after providing Ehrlich gun-crime statistics that Battaglia said underrepresented her office's efforts.

Battaglia has denied taking any action against ATF agents.

The issue is still very much alive. Last week in Washington, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch, a Utah Republican, directed two federal agencies to determine whether Battaglia retaliated against the agents.

Battaglia blames politics for fueling the debate and overshadowing her program's successes. Ehrlich is frequently mentioned as a possible GOP candidate for governor in 2002, and in targeting Disarm, he has staked out an issue that could help him build a tough-on-crime reputation.

For her part, Battaglia maintains that Disarm is helping make Baltimore safer.

She points to recent police statistics that show nonfatal shootings in the city are down by nearly 20 percent. And Maryland's federal prosecutors are pursuing more illegal gun cases than ever. Disarm cases have accounted for nearly half the criminal indictments in U.S. District Court in Baltimore this year, statistics show.

But Ehrlich says Disarm still disappoints on one key statistic: the number of murders in the city. As of yesterday, Baltimore police had recorded 209 homicides this year, compared with 200 at the same time last year.

"Last time I checked, we were on track for 300-plus," Ehrlich said. "That's the only number that counts."

Battaglia, who has indicated she will seek a state judicial appointment when her term as U.S. attorney ends this year, counters that tying the homicide rate to any one program is too simplistic.

It doesn't account for other factors, such as an increased emphasis on community policing in Richmond that coincided with Exile, she said. And it doesn't explain cities where policing has generally remained unchanged in recent years, but homicide rates have steadily dropped.

In Richmond, one leading prosecutor agrees.

"I'm sure there's other things," said James B. Comey, a deputy U.S. attorney in Virginia who helped start Exile. "If I knew what made crime go down for sure, I'd be writing books."

But he said Exile - started under U.S. Attorney Helen F. Fahey, who, like Battaglia, is a Clinton-appointed prosecutor - deserves some of the credit in Richmond, where the city's unique experience targeting gun crimes has drawn national attention and praise from allies as unlikely as Handgun Control Inc. and the National Rifle Association.

Comey said two things made Exile work in Virginia's capital city of 200,000. One was the willingness to take virtually all city gun cases to federal court. The other was a pervasive, well-funded advertising campaign that includes television and radio spots, billboards and a city bus painted with the slogan, "An Illegal Gun Gets You Five Years in Federal Prison."

The idea, Comey said, was, "Maybe if the gun becomes a liability in their mind's eye, they'll leave the gun at home, and we'll have fewer homicides."

Federal judges in Richmond raised concerns about the number of gun cases flooding the court. Last year, in a rare three-judge opinion, district judges denied a defendant's constitutional challenge to Exile, but called the program a "substantial federal incursion into a sovereign state's area of authority and responsibility."

Richmond authorities say they were able to reassure skeptics with quick results.

After recording 139 homicides in 1997, according to federal statistics, the number dropped to 94 in 1998 and to 74 last year.

Additionally, 762 guns have been seized in the city. And in testimony to a congressional subcommittee last year, Richmond Police Chief Jerry A. Oliver said his officers are seeing fewer criminals carrying guns.

"I'm not naive enough to say there aren't any guns in this city," said Richmond Police Detective Harvey S. Powers. But he said, "At least now when they pick up a gun and put it in their pocket, they think about it."

Criminals know about Exile thanks to a $600,000 promotional effort funded by a loose collection of civic leaders and community groups. About a third of that money came from the NRA, which awarded the program two $100,000 grants.

While applauding Richmond's program, White House and Justice officials have cautioned that there can't be one "cookie-cutter approach" at the federal level to reducing crime. And they have said federal programs cannot replace efforts by local police and state court systems.

Battaglia agrees with that sentiment and says Baltimore, three times the size of Richmond, has unique problems, such as a heroin epidemic.

Yet, Baltimore is steadily moving to be more like Exile in punishing gun crimes. Over the past year, Battaglia's office has widely expanded the criteria for pursuing gun cases in federal court - sharply increasing the number of cases.

Meanwhile, city and state officials announced this week a statewide advertising campaign for a tough new state gun law - dubbed Automatic5 - that makes a five-year jail term mandatory for convicted felons found carrying guns.

Across the country, dozens of cities are trying to directly duplicate Exile. The Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed a measure this year that would make grants available to cities that pattern gun programs after Exile.

In Richmond, Comey said one unexpected number shows their approach working - the number of criminals arrested with guns is steadily shrinking.

"We're sort of working ourselves out of business, which is what we predicted," Comey said. "If you did this right, it would change behavior."

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