Dixon, police meet over crime plan

The Baltimore Sun

Facing increases in homicides and shootings and a dip in police morale, Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon outlined yesterday her plan to reduce violence in a closed-door presentation before roughly 500 city officers who were ordered to attend.

"You hear rumors that people don't understand the [crime] plan," she said in a briefing to reporters after her 30-minute meeting with officers at the downtown police headquarters. "I just wanted to make it very clear what the plan is. ... Communicate the mission. Sometimes there's a breakdown."

The meeting, however, drew criticism from union officials who dismissed the mayor's plan as a "PowerPoint presentation," a political opponent who charged the meeting was a publicity stunt and former police chief Edward T. Norris, who introduced his own crime plan on his talk radio program.

Dixon told the officers she wants them to arrest the city's most violent offenders, create positive relationships with residents in neighborhoods and bridge a deep fissure between the police and the court system.

Former Mayor Martin O'Malley had favored a zero-tolerance crime-fighting policy and asked officers to make more arrests on quality-of-life offenses such as loitering, a strategy that alienated the police from some residents.

O'Malley and the city's top prosecutor, State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy, also had a tumultuous relationship that at times descended into public name-calling. Dixon has sought to include the state's attorney's office in more decisions and strategy sessions.

Police officers have said that the shift to Dixon's crime strategy since she took office in January has been muddled. "She doesn't have a crime plan, it is a PowerPoint presentation," said Paul Blair, the union president.

"We've always gone after violent criminals," he said. "That we have stopped the 'quality of life' [arrests] is not true. We are still doing that."

Blair added that he knows of one squad charged with giving tickets to young adults riding dirt bikes and another squad ordered to focus on open-container violations.

"If you are really worried about the violent criminals, then don't worry about somebody opening a cold beer on the corner," Blair said.

On Monday night, Blair organized a 1 1/2 -hour forum with City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake and 85 rank-and-file officers. He described the gathering as "productive" and "positive."

Of that meeting, Blair said: "I think the council [president] heard about how morale is in the agency. The members are speaking out, saying, 'We want to do a good job. We work for the lowest-paid department in the area. We didn't come to get rich.'"

Meanwhile, the city's violence has continued. There have been 146 homicides so far this year, compared with 127 at this time last year. If the killings continue at the current rate, the city will exceed 300 homicides this year, a number that has not been surpassed since 1999.

Nonfatal shootings have also increased, with 340 this year - including one man who was shot in the foot in the Northwest District minutes before the meeting. Last year, 262 people suffered nonfatal gunshot wounds during the same period.

Amid the surging violence, yesterday's meeting between Dixon and the officers grew tense at times.

Detective Robert F. Cherry Jr., a top union official, received a standing ovation when he told the mayor that the department's patrol division lacks adequate leadership, according to three officers who attended the meeting but declined to be named since they do not have permission to speak to reporters. Cherry declined to comment, saying that he respects the mayor's wish to keep the meeting private.

The chief of patrol is Col. Deborah A. Owens, the first woman to hold that post, and Cherry said in the meeting that her brash style is demoralizing to officers under her command, according to the three officers.

Blair said that Cherry's remarks about Owens do not reflect the official position of the union, but he acknowledged that she is unpopular with many of the rank and file.

After the meeting, when asked whether she supports police Commissioner Leonard D. Hamm, Dixon said: "Talking about changing leadership, that is not going to come today or tomorrow. I think that would be a bad message to send."

Anthony McCarthy, the mayor's spokesman, said later that Dixon is aware of rank-and-file concerns with Owens. "I think that Mayor Dixon wanted the police officers to be as frank and honest as possible," he said. "She appreciates hearing their feedback, not only about issues on the street but also about her command staff."

Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., who is running for mayor, put out a statement yesterday criticizing Dixon for pulling 500 officers into an auditorium and off the streets during a spike in crime. "It seemed like more of a publicity stunt than trying to accomplish anything," he said.

"There is a lack of leadership at the top and lack of direction," Mitchell said. "That demoralizes officers. Morale is low."

Mitchell declined to say whether he would keep Hamm as police chief if he were elected mayor.

Meanwhile, Norris, the former police commissioner who pleaded guilty to federal public corruption and tax charges and is now a talk radio host, introduced his own crime plan yesterday on his show.

His seven-point plan included calling for an extensive audit of crime numbers, which he said he believes have been manipulated in recent years to show a reduction in violent crimes, and beefing up the warrant apprehension task force to find the city's most violent wanted offenders.

Dixon said that she listened to much of Norris' program. "His plan sounds like a duplicate of my plan," she said. "Go after the most violent offenders."

Norris also criticized the mayor's meeting. "She's making them come to a mandatory meeting they don't want to attend. ... If you have to order police officers to come to a meeting, you have a problem. That speaks volumes about their relationship," Norris said.

The Police Department could not provide an exact number of officers who attended, or what units were represented, but officers who spoke on condition of anonymity said that officers from each division were represented.

Immediately after the meeting, Dixon addressed officers at the Central District's roll call, but City Hall officials demanded that a reporter stand in the hallway out of earshot. Dixon said that none of those officers asked questions.


Sun reporters Julie Bykowicz and Nicole Fuller contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad