We all want Baltimore to be a safer place. But in a world of limited resources, what is the best way?

One constituent who wrote to City Hall last week was pretty sure he knew. He had read an article in this newspaper and expressed great alarm that city leaders would spend money on anything else when the Police Department was, evidently, not properly staffed.

So: Are we to simply spend whatever money we can find on more police, at the expense of other programs and services?

A review of the history is in order. In fiscal year 1990, Baltimore spent $165 million on the Police Department and $37 million on the Recreation and Parks Department. This coming year, we are poised to spend $353 million on Police, while Recreation and Parks is down to $31 million. Over those 20 years, the city's operating budget has gone up 85 percent. The police budget, however, has grown by 113 percent, while Recreation and Parks has shrunk by 15 percent.

In other words, for 20 years, we have been disproportionately allocating our resources in trying to deter and catch criminals while investing less and less in the programs most likely to keep our children from becoming criminals in the first place.

Why? Because elected officials are pretty good at discerning the difference between the things people say are important and what they really believe is important.

I go to a lot of events where children and youth are the main focus. I spend lots of time in rooms with people who talk about the importance of youth and how youth are our future - and who then go home to communities where they and their neighbors look out their windows, see those same youth standing on the corners, and are frightened.

At that point, few call their councilperson asking for more late-night recreation programs in their community. Almost nobody e-mails the mayor demanding that she put more money for after-school programs in her budget. Most simply call the police and tell them to hurry.

Don't get me wrong; I have nothing but respect for the men and women of the Baltimore City Police Department. Anyone who puts on that uniform and runs down dark alleys after a bad guy will always have my unending gratitude and my sincere admiration. At some level though, we're asking Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III and his people to do an impossible job. If we don't also take a real financial interest in the collective raising of the next generation, we will end up with more new criminals than we will ever be able to effectively police.

We've got to stop telling ourselves that all we have to do is put more officers on the streets and everything will be all right. Because it's not that simple.

When I started sharing the historical budget numbers, I was asked if perhaps the recreation budget deserved to be smaller because fewer kids are now using the recreation centers. At first I thought that was just naive, but then I realized it was insightful - and horrifying. There are tens of thousands of young adults out there now who we, the citizens of Baltimore, effectively decided we would "serve" with police over the last 20 years, rather than with recreation or parks. Not including, of course, the three or four thousand who were victims of homicide during that same period - or perhaps, especially including them.

Mayor Dixon has proved she cares about young people by increasing spending on youth more than any other mayor in the last 20 years. If the City Council can help her identify more money that we can invest in youth development activities - such as those in recreation centers, libraries and other after-school programs - I hope that she will recognize such an increase as the wise investment it will be and support it.

Even when times are tough, we have to be willing to spend resources on long-term solutions, or the problems will never go away. Recreation centers, libraries and other after-school programming are the tools city government has available to prevent not just crime but criminals.

Baltimoreans need to recognize that youth development isn't another priority in competition with public safety; it is public safety.

Bill Henry represents North Baltimore's 4th District on the Baltimore City Council. His e-mail is bill.henry@baltimorecity.gov.

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