In Clark probe, a sign city's priority is action, not words


AH, LIFE IN the big city.

Three years ago, the Baltimore City Council spent three days interrogating Edward Norris before they confirmed him as police commissioner. Last week, they spent maybe two hours with his successor, Kevin Clark. Three years ago, they grilled Norris so intensely that, when he deserted the city several weeks ago, Norris was still bitter about it. Last week, the most controversial question they asked Clark was: Do you go to church?

Councilman Melvin Stukes asked that one, perhaps fearing that a crime spree might break out while Clark was communing with God. (Clark, with his mom and dad sitting nearby, assured everyone that he goes every Sunday.)

But it was just one in a series of softballs the council tossed his way and invited him to swat out of the park. Councilman John Cain told Clark he'd had a lovely dream about him. Councilwoman Lois A. Garey quickly added, "I think you're a pretty good guy, although I don't dream about you."

This was the tone of the hearing. The questions were so gentle and so respectful that, as Clark's top brass slipped out of City Hall, one of them whispered, "Do the words 'foregone conclusion' come to mind?"

Actually, yes.

And, actually, maybe this is not such a bad thing as it seemed while it was happening. But let's wait a few paragraphs before getting to that.

To listen to the council Wednesday evening was to despair that anyone had bothered noticing crime in the city. We can offer the standard hosannas to Mayor Martin O'Malley, who made street crime his top priority, and to Norris before he took a powder, and most of all to the street cops who do all the dirty work.

But it is still a fact that, for all the progress, we had about 250 people killed here a year ago, and 600 more who were shot but managed to survive. There were 5,100 robberies and 8,600 burglaries. There were 8,500 aggravated assaults and 6,800 cars stolen.

In the face of this, it might have been nice to hear someone on the council press Clark for details about how he thinks he can change this. In New York, where he commanded a tough precinct in the Bronx, they performed miracles of cutting crime. How can we do it here? What, specifically, does Clark intend to do differently than we've been doing? In the month that he's been here, what, specifically, has he learned we've been doing wrong? How, specifically, does he intend to change the worst of our neighborhoods into places where civilized human beings can live without fear?

What we heard were polite, generalized questions and polite, generalized answers. On the big issues such as murder and drugs, there was little that Clark said that we haven't heard from a succession of law enforcement people over the past 30 disastrous years.

Except for one phrase, which he probably said a dozen times and nobody raised so much as an eyebrow. The same phrase, three years ago, would have caused people to raise the roof. The phrase is: quality of life.

Three years ago, this was considered a euphemism for a line popularized in the famous New York crime fight: zero tolerance. But "zero tolerance" was considered code for racism. The fear was that zero tolerance meant wholesale arrests of young black men.

This is a city where some people still remember Donald Pomerleau, a police commissioner who made no secret about targeting certain black people. It's a city that remembers blacks hustled off in handcuffs for such crimes as loitering. Three years ago, it was a city where the new mayor had to can a police commissioner who happened to be black (57 days after Ron Daniel got the job), and then replaced him with a new commissioner, Norris, who happened to be white and did not fully understand the nuances of language.

But last week, the new commissioner, Clark, said, "We have to attack the little things, quality-of-life issues, such as littering, by people we know have a long history of narcotics."

Three years ago, to speak this way was to wave a red flag. It was seen as a prelude to the bad old days, and no amount of assurance from Norris seemed sufficient.

This time around, the words were taken in stride. Maybe Clark's race has something to do with it. Or maybe it's just that, after three years of attacking "quality-of-life" issues, and seeing hopeful drops in street crime, there's an understanding that it doesn't stand for racism. It stands for telling ourselves that we don't have to let thugs take over street corners.

Language is a sensitive thing. On matters of race, we sometimes judge each other guilty by choice of euphemisms. But we get so caught up in parsing each other's words that we lose sight of the bigger picture: in this case, protecting the innocent from the guilty, whatever their race.

Last week the City Council gave Kevin Clark a pretty easy go of it. Maybe they're still exhausted from grilling Norris. Or maybe, three years later, we can get past some of the old sensitivities and get on with cutting crime.

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