Amid a recent spate of violence in Baltimore, City Councilman and mayoral candidate Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. yesterday proposed hiring at least 140 more police officers, conducting weekly press conferences to update the public and spending more money on witness protection.
Though he offered few specifics for how many of his ideas would be funded, Mitchell blasted his opponent, Mayor Sheila Dixon, for her handling of crime over the past four months and suggested that the recent increase in homicides is due to a lack of direction from City Hall.
As of yesterday, there had been 130 homicides in Baltimore, up 15 from the same point last year.
Mitchell is the latest candidate to weigh in on crime, an issue that will likely be central in this year's local election and that has received more attention in recent weeks.
The Dixon administration, which unveiled its own crime plan in April, argued that many of Mitchell's ideas are already in place.
"Crime in Baltimore won't be reduced by sound bites or rehashing old ideas," Mitchell said.
"There is no greater bond between government and citizens than the pledge to keep people safe."
Mitchell's eight-page plan, which he released at an event on the corner of North Avenue and Harford Road, calls for filling the roughly 140 police positions that are funded in the budget but that are vacant.
The department has been actively recruiting officers, but Mitchell said he would step up those efforts by demanding recruiters attend all major job fairs and college campuses on the East Coast.
Mitchell said he would like to hire 300 more police - or, 160 above the slots that are already funded - but it is unclear how he would pay for such an increase.
A Mitchell campaign aide said dollars could be diverted from money spent on overtime or from wasteful city contracts, but the campaign did not provide any specific contracts it believed could be trimmed.
Anthony McCarthy, a Dixon spokesman, said that several of Mitchell's ideas - such as engaging "people of faith" and building "more effective police-community partnerships" - are already under way.
Others, he argued, are easier said than done.
"It's very difficult to respond to wishful thoughts or wishful ideas. It would be easier to respond to a solid plan that had financial information attached to it," McCarthy said.
"While he is making a lot of extraordinary promises, Mayor Dixon has to deal with financial realities as the mayor of the city," he said.
Mitchell criticized Dixon for being "more interested in press conferences ... than truly changing things for the better," but offered as a central component of his plan the establishment of a weekly press conference that he said would be used to update residents about crime and improve trust between police and residents.
He also recommended "adequately" funding the city's witness protection program, but did not specify how much money he believes would be needed.
The current budget includes about $687,000 for the state's attorney witness protection program, roughly $2,000 less than the agency had requested.
Dixon, who became mayor in January when Martin O'Malley was elected governor, has shifted away from the zero-tolerance policing that defined the O'Malley administration's crime policy.
She has focused more attention on individual violent criminals, adding foot patrols and expanding city services to troubled neighborhoods.
Dixon released her own crime strategy in late April. Though it, too, was short on many details - and included many programs that were already in place under O'Malley - it generally called for bringing greater attention to what the mayor has said is a small number of offenders who are causing most of the violence.
'She doesn't get it'
Mitchell, yesterday, attacked that logic.
"She just doesn't get it. First, if we know it's just a few 'thugs,' why aren't they rounded up?" Mitchell asked.
"Secondly, that's reactive, not proactive. The violence is going on every day."
Starting this week, city police assigned to special investigative units or administrative positions are being ordered to walk a beat at least one day per week.
The move has caused consternation among some police because they are being pulled away from other assignments - such as investigating homicides - and also because some are being asked to walk alone.
City officials said police who are walking alone are within two or three blocks of another officer.
The Democratic primary, which has decided the mayor's race for decades, will take place on Sept. 11. In addition to Mitchell and Dixon, Del. Jill P. Carter, schools administrator Andrey Bundley, Comptroller Joan M. Pratt, Circuit Court Clerk Frank M. Conaway Sr. and socialist A. Robert Kaufman have said they are running or are considering a run.
The deadline to file for a city office is July 2.
Ralph B. Taylor, a criminal justice professor at Temple University, said that despite the rhetoric common in election year, mayors have limited power to fight crime. The most important function a mayor provides is appointing a police commissioner.
Local officials can also fight for more state and federal funding, which is something most of the candidates have agreed to do.
Mitchell crime plan
City Councilman and mayoral candidate Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. unveiled an eight-page plan to fight crime yesterday. Here are some of the highlights:
Recruitment: Emergency funds will be spent on an aggressive media campaign designed to enlist more officers. The media campaign will include Internet and urban radio stations. In all, Mitchell would attempt to fill at least 140 vacant police positions.
Police foundation: Reconstitute a foundation that could receive private donations and that could be used for bonus pay and purchasing equipment.
Witness Protection: According to the plan, "we need to adequately fund this program."
Drugs: Re-establish an Interstate 95 task force that includes Maryland State Police, Baltimore County Police, Harford County Police, and federal agencies to catch drugs and guns before they enter the city.
Police residency: Higher pay to police officers who choose to live in the districts where they work.
Gangs: A three-pronged approach: "(1) get parents involved, (2) educate children on alternatives to gang membership, and (3) enforce the law."
Drug treatment: Increase the number of drug treatment centers.
Police stability: Allow officers to have the choice "to serve in the same district throughout their careers, even as they rise through the ranks."[Source: Mitchell's campaign. The entire plan is available at www.keiffermitchell.com/]