Crime - particularly the chronic violent crime that has become synonymous with Baltimore -- is the No. 1 issue on voters' minds as they head to the polls for the primary election.

With less than a week to go before Baltimoreans pick a new mayor and City Council, The Sun presents a conversation, moderated by columnist Dan Rodricks, with four people who have wrestled with crime and violence in different ways -- Paul Blair Jr., president of the Baltimore Fraternal Order of Police and a 38-year veteran of the force; Marvin "Doc" Cheatham, president of the Baltimore chapter of the NAACP, which recently launched an anti-violence effort that included posting a current citywide homicide toll in its front window and calling for residents and businesses to do the same; Haydee M. Rodriguez, executive director of the Governor's Commission on Hispanic Affairs, who agreed to take part in the discussion as a private citizen after her brother was beaten last month by robbers on a city street; and Hathaway Ferebee, executive director of Safe & Sound Campaign, an organization devoted to improving the health and safety of Baltimore children. Do you think we are obsessed with the homicides? Do we invest too much time and concern in this? I ask because there's a flow of life to Baltimore that's healthy and normal; thousands of people just live life here, never touched by all this violence.


RODRIGUEZ: Obsessed? Absolutely not. I would say we're not paying enough attention. One murder a day is too many for a city in a First World country in a nation that touts itself as the richest in the world.

BLAIR: In January, when a city police officer, Troy Chesly, was murdered after doing his tour, a father of five, the next day the story was not about Troy but about Cal [Ripken] being picked for the Hall of Fame. Nothing against Cal. But that was the lead story on the radio stations -- not about a police officer. So there's no sustained outrage, no urgency?


BLAIR: These are human lives. I don't care whether they're the drug dealers trying to get out of the business, or whatever. It's still a human life, still somebody grieving. And ... it's accepted in this town.

CHEATHAM: The thing that really troubles me is no one seems to really care until it knocks on their door. At Baker and Gilmore -- I've done three rallies in the same area. The third one we did, one woman who walked by us the first time, who didn't care, it was her child that got killed about six years later. My message to them was: What are you waiting for? Are you waiting until murder knocks on your door to get outraged?

FEREBEE: I think there is an obsession with the numbers and it's the wrong focus. Our leadership deals with the problem of the killings and not the fundamental problems that create the environment that puts people in the position to kill or be killed. It's very frustrating to hear what I consider to be almost meaningless discussion in the political debates right now about what we're going to do about crime. ... The outrage should not be because a number is growing, but because of the way we withhold opportunity from people in this community. Are you blaming murders on a lack of jobs?

FEREBEE: I'm blaming the lack of public policy that guides how our public dollars -- a city budget of $2.9 billion -- are spent. Let's say this year we're really concerned with how many third-graders don't read. The budget is put forth, and we say that this year we are going to raise the literacy rate of third-graders to 80 percent, and we can do that because we know exactly what needs to happen and we have enough programs. The budget has to articulate that.

CHEATHAM: If we're saying crime and education are the two major issues affecting our communities, then our budget should reflect those priorities. In Baltimore City it does not. And look at the number of drug addicts we have -- 60,000, [related to] a significant number of shootings, death, crime. And yet we have no major [treatment] facility that can even handle 10 percent of them.

RODRIGUEZ: I agree. We have had a huge disinvestment in social programs for our cities over the last 40 years and what we see now is a result of that. ... There's a correlation between poverty and crime, lack of education and lack of opportunity. ... We have the solutions but we don't have the ire -- the ire that is in kids when they beat someone up -- that we need to ensure that the resources are spent on our communities. I don't think it's about politicians.

FEREBEE: I blame the politicians. ...

CHEATHAM: I would say where we are losing the greatest leadership is in the faith-based community. You don't hear [stop the violence] as a message on a regular basis. Paul and [the police] -- they can't get us out of this. They can help, but the community has to turn this thing around.


RODRIGUEZ: In the meantime, sadly, innocent people will continue to pay -- innocent people like my brother.

BLAIR: I was running some numbers the other day. The city is bragging that crime is down, and I think it's outrageous with [213, as of Thursday] people dead that you'd have the guts to say that. A person is robbed in the city every 2.1 hours, and it's down 15 percent from last year -- and they're touting it because it's down. On the homicides and young guys, help me out. If their buddies are getting killed, and they know they could be next, why don't they get it, that they could die?

CHEATHAM: Sadly, for many young folks, death is almost a banner they have accepted. They believe that many of them won't get to 21. And it starts so early with them. We got kids 5 and 6 who are handling drugs. They are being put into a system and no one's showing them there's a different way, a better way. How do we get in there and show them?

FEREBEE: Give them opportunity. Flood their neighborhoods with jobs, with great schools, safe facilities and enough teachers. ... We create these deprived environments and sustain them, and then the consequence of that is this dysfunctional behavior -- killings, rapes, and then we go, 'See, see . ...' We don't link the consequence to the environment. ...

CHEATHAM: Look at those committing crimes -- teenagers and young adults. Most didn't finish high school, have no trade, no ability to do anything, which means even if we have a job, nine out of 10 don't have the training to handle it. ...Why don't we build their vocational skills, get them in plumbing, carpentry?

BLAIR: You used to be able to go to high school and become an auto mechanic.


CHEATHAM: Or learn to cut Hair. ...

RODRIGUEZ: I'm convinced that if this was some other setting these kids would be getting every single resource available to them.

FEREBEE: A child at 10 shouldn't have to chose between holding drugs for a dealer and ... It just wouldn't be in a 10-year-old's mind to do that if there were opportunities -- a neighborhood where he went out and played ball, went to a good school. ... I take fault with our leadership.

CHEATHAM: The majority of our elected officials have been in office 10 to 15 years, sufficient time for them to make corrections. We've not had corrections, we've gone in the opposite direction. Yet most people I talk to will elect the same people again. ... How much time are we going to give them? When Martin O'Malley ran for mayor I heard him say that people who live in Clifton Park should feel just as safe as people in Roland Park.

FEREBEE: Then he went and arrested every young black kid on the street corner. He didn't arrest every black kid.

FEREBEE: Oh, did he miss a few? They made a lot of arrests and violent crime went down.


FEREBEE: I know you feel that's related. What else do you want to attribute it to -- just a national trend?

FEREBEE: Mr. Mayor O'Malley goes down to become governor, then within weeks Baltimore is a terrible city again. ...

BLAIR: We didn't have gangs until he was elected [governor]. ... Under O'Malley we were not allowed to mention gangs in a police report.

FEREBEE: [to Rodricks] So you're saying what he did was brilliant and we got down to two-hundred-and ...

BLAIR: Two-hundred-and-fifty-two homicides ...

FEREBEE: Two-hundred-and-fifty-two. Holy ... ! Compared to 360 or 370 during the Schmoke years. Where is your memory?


BLAIR: Three-hundred-sixty-three, I think, was the highest.

FEREBEE: So when [O'Malley] was mayor, everything was under control? Policies like zero tolerance, put in place when O'Malley was mayor, have changed. The present mayor thinks we've arrested too many people.

BLAIR: Zero-tolerance [during the O'Malley administration] got ridiculous. A 56-year-old church woman sitting on Sunday on a vacant house went to jail. Some minister driving who didn't have a driver's license and the computer said he was suspended; we didn't worry about whether he was or not, we locked him up. It went to extremes. ... But it doesn't sound like you disagreed with zero-tolerance policing.

FEREBEE: Don't put words in his mouth!

BLAIR: We went overboard. You go to a community -- before we come in, [we should ask], 'What are the main things you all can't stand?' Everybody playing music at 11:30 at night, kids sitting on the corner, the prostitutes using the little park over there to work their trade. Now, 'What don't you care about?' See the old guys sitting down at the corner playing cards every night? They could stay there all they want. ... Then the police come in and do what the neighborhood wants. You just don't go out and lock everybody up. So what was the magic of the O'Malley years then?

BLAIR: Tight black T-shirt and a guitar, wasn't it?


RODRIGUEZ: Come on. Did crime just fall naturally because that was the trend?

BLAIR: O'Malley made law enforcement a priority. He found money to hire police and pay the police. ... The men and women were happy -- they went out and did the job. They had a commissioner, Norris, he was a breath of fresh air. They went out and did selective enforcement. We went up on Greenmount, we took over and held it, drove out the drug dealers. We went up there undercover and watched who the real criminals were before we went in and did all the sweeps. We just didn't go in and figure if we lock up 100, one of you has drugs on you. ... When O'Malley made a priority of crime, they were good years. Then he forgot about crime, forgot about the rights of citizens, and his priority was to be elected governor.

RODRIGUEZ: I'm sorry, Paul, but once again we're throwing blame unfairly just on elected officials. ... Where are the communities, where are the families? We cannot blame -- and I agree with Doc -- the problem completely on our elected officials.

BLAIR: This small group -- the five of us -- we can't even agree on the one thing that maybe in 2008 the city should target to do.

FEREBEE: We [can] say gun violence is not going to be tolerated. You [introduce] the Operation Safe Neighborhoods strategy that gives law enforcement the tools they need, the communication between the state's attorney's office and the feds. This was done in Baltimore, right before Mayor O'Malley was elected. ... We declare that gun violence will no longer be tolerated. We can't get everyone all at once, but be the most violent neighborhood and you'll attract our attention. ... When it was done under Schmoke. ... We had 300-plus homicides a year...

FEREBEE: The last nine months of the Schmoke years, [targeted gun enforcement] was showing signs...


BLAIR: If you really want to break this cycle, it can't be done overnight. We've got to go back and fund [programs] to save the kids, because the only thing out there to join right now is a gang, and they are scarier than anything I've ever seen. ... We shut down rec programs. We got rid of the Officer Friendly programs. We have none in the police department anymore. What about PAL [Police Athletic League]?

BLAIR: It's so underfunded and understaffed and the officers have to do that so many days and do the rest of the days out on the street locking people up. We [used to have] a dedicated hug-the-kid officer. We don't have that luxury, and the kids have nowhere to turn. ...

CHEATHAM: Be it spring, winter, fall or summer, the one thing I had accessible to me was playing some sport all year round. When I got on the street for the most part wasn't hangin' on the street because I was playing football, baseball, basketball, runnin' track. We were doing something every season. All of that's gone.

BLAIR: The Police Department had a camp in summer, and we took kids away for two weeks at a time.

CHEATHAM: We can lock them up all the time. They are just going to be replaced by another group.

RODRIGUEZ: Unless we all take ownership. I just learned today the Ravens are funding a fitness center in Sandtown-Winchester. And I'm thinking, if we had more of that, it would not be the solution and be all of everything, but a beginning.


CHEATHAM: If we don't begin to train those folks that did not get the education, if we don't begin to give drug rehab to addicts, it's going to continue to be a revolving door. ...

BLAIR: We'll all be sitting here in 20 years [asking] what are we doing about this murder rate.