Mayoral candidates say little about crime during campaign

Ella Bailey and her two grandsons hurried down a strip mall sidewalk on a recent sultry summer morning, sipping bottles of pineapple soda.

The three passed by a dark swirl on the sidewalk, a bloody reminder that a delivery man was fatally shot at this Northeast Baltimore shopping center less than a month ago. A gouge in the parking lot marks the spot where a bullet ricocheted, shopping center employees say.

"All day, all you hear is ambulances and police cars, ambulances and police cars. Somebody got hurt. Somebody got killed," said Bailey, 48, who lives a few blocks away in the Belair-Edison neighborhood. "To me, it's real bad. We're not really safe anywhere."

While Baltimore's homicide rate has declined in recent years, the city remains among the most violent in the country.

Yet, while residents say they are concerned for their safety, those vying to be the city's next mayor have said little about crime during their campaigns. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and her challengers all say they support the city's current crime-fighting strategy, which was implemented in 2007 under then-Mayor Sheila Dixon amid surging violence that served as the focal point of that year's election.

Political analysts said they are surprised that Rawlings-Blake's challengers have not pounced on the issue and the string of police department scandals over the past year.

"It strikes me as a bit strange that the state of the police department has not become an issue," said Matthew Crenson, political science professor emeritus at the Johns Hopkins University. He said the recession has drawn politicians' attention from crime to economic issues, such as Baltimore's high property tax rates and lack of jobs.

While they seem to agree on the larger crime-fighting strategy, there are some differences among the candidates.

While Rawlings-Blake has pledged to hire 300 police officers and to increase the use of crime cameras, her challengers advocate preventing crime by bolstering recreation centers and youth jobs — programs Rawlings-Blake has trimmed.

Former city planning director Otis Rolley presented a series of unorthodox ideas — including a $1 tax on bullets and reduced penalties for marijuana possession — at a town hall meeting this month. He has pledged to create incentives for businesses to hire ex-offenders and work with churches to create crime prevention programs.

State Sen. Catherine E. Pugh has called for an audit of police statistics, saying she doesn't "have any confidence that we are reporting our numbers correctly" and has vowed to restructure the Police Department. She said she would appoint an independent inspector general to root out corruption.

Former Realtor Joseph T. "Jody" Landers said he would make it easier for addicts to receive treatment, including making methadone and bupenorphine more readily available.

Clerk of Courts Frank M. Conaway Sr. said that the city needs to create more blue-collar jobs to keep people from crime. He said he wants to increase the size of the Howard Street rail tunnel to increase jobs for stevedores and truck drivers.

"They don't commit crimes out of malice," said Conaway. "They do so out of frustration and despair. We have to find a way to put them back to work."

Landers, Pugh and Rolley have questioned Rawlings-Blake's pledge to hire more officers, a plan that essentially fills open positions.

"We don't need more cops. We need screened, well-trained, reasonably-compensated police," said Rolley.

But Rawlings-Blake said residents want to see more officers. "At community association meetings, I've never heard people say ever that we need fewer police officers on the street," she said.

Three of the challengers have also said they would fight the state's decision to build a $104 million juvenile jail in East Baltimore, a plan that Rawlings-Blake supports.

"I think it is a tremendous waste of money," said Landers. "When we [incarcerate young people], we're creating a permanent underclass. People are locked in and they can't envision a better future for themselves."

Rawlings-Blake walked through this same Belair-Edison shopping center in January 2010, weeks before assuming the mayor's office after Sheila Dixon's resignation. On a recent morning, a homicide detective stepped into the small shops, asking employees about the fatal shooting of Chong Wan Yim, who was killed in a robbery attempt as he delivered sodas.

Residents here say their lives are marked by fear and violence. Lingering outside a discount grocery store, they ask one another about gun shots that echoed on a recent evening. Young gang members often fire shots to intimidate rivals, they say.

Henry Young, 43, hitches up his shirt to show a smattering of pink scars — relics of a 2009 stabbing, he said.

Young, who says he served four years in prison for selling drugs and assaulting another man in a prison fight, said his record makes it nearly impossible for him to find steady employment.

"When I talk to employers, they never call back, and when I call, they say the position has been filled," he said. Young, a burly man with a gray beard, said he makes about $75 to $90 a day doing home improvement work under the table.

The city's murder rate is at its lowest point since 1989. Officials say the strategy of targeting violent offenders — the city's worst of the worst — has made the difference.

Dixon put that strategy in place in 2007 when she appointed Frederick H. Bealefeld III, a longtime city drug cop, police commissioner while violence spiked. The following year, killings plummeted to 234, and the murder rate has since held steady. Moreover, overall shootings and gun violence have declined sharply.

But the Police Department has also been beset by turmoil. Police mistakenly shot and killed a fellow officer in a melee outside a nightclub; more than 50 officers were implicated in a towing kickback scheme and a veteran officer was recently charged with selling heroin from the parking lot of a police station.

The neighborhoods most ravaged by crime, specifically West and East Baltimore, may now have fewer shootings and less gun violence, but the conditions that many believe lead to such crime remain mostly unchanged. Vacant homes and empty lots, trash, drug abuse and lack of family structure remain widespread.

Andrew Foster Connors, co-chair of the interfaith coalition Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, said city leaders must pull young people away from the temptations of drugs and violence.

"Think about the drug economy as a corporate recruiting program, and the benefits it offers to young people, and ask us if we are competing with those benefits," said Connors. "What kind of opportunities are we providing to young people to dream about their future?"

The BUILD coalition is lobbying mayoral candidates to support a platform that includes increased funding for recreation, youth jobs and school construction.

Daniel Webster, co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, said that Baltimore cannot cut crime through policing alone.

"Law enforcement is a very important piece, but of course a number of things contribute to a city's level of violence — schools, the economy," he said. "Those are long-term kind of issues that we have to address to create an environment in which dealing drugs, getting into gangs isn't such an attractive alternative."

Landers, Pugh and Rolley all say that they would expand recreation and job opportunities for young people in an effort to head off crime. Conaway said that putting young people to work must be the "most urgent priority."

Pugh said she would create a high school track for students interested in becoming police officers or firefighters. And she said she would create year-round job opportunities for youth.

Rolley said he hopes to pull churches into the fight against crime, organizing mediation programs, education, recreation and social service programs.

"The only thing that outnumbers the liquor stores in the city are the churches," Rolley said.

He says he would pilot a program — modeled after a similar initiative in Boston — in two police districts with the highest levels of crime. The program would cost "a couple of million dollars" to start, with additional assistance coming from the churches, Rolley said.

Rolley added that he would double funding for after school programs and increase the number of students hired by the city's summer jobs program to 10,000. About 5,000 students are employed this summer, down from a high of 7,000 in 2009.

Rawlings-Blake said she had no choice but to trim recreation and summer jobs programs during two consecutive years of budget shortfalls. She said her challengers' plans to boost funding for youth programs were unrealistic.

"My opponents have been extremely diligent with pointing out Baltimore's extremely obvious problems," she said. "They're saying they want more of everything, but they want to make irresponsible tax cuts."

Despite a $65 million budget gap, Rawlings-Blake raised the city's operating budget by one percent to $1.3 billion this year. Funding for police climbed by $3.9 million to $356.9 million, while the budget for recreation centers dropped by a half million to $10.2 million.

Rawlings-Blake also touted a law providing tougher penalties for gun violations that was passed by the General Assembly this year. Rawlings-Blake was the third Baltimore mayor to lobby for such a law — and the first to succeed.

Webster, the Hopkins criminologist, praised Rawlings-Blake for sticking with an approach to crime that appears to be working.

"We had gone through so many different commissioners, each with his own particular view and approach, and it's nice to see a situation where you've had a fairly consistent approach for some extended period of time," he said.

Both Pugh and Rolley have advocated some creative plans for cutting back crime.

Rolley proposed levying a $1 tax on bullets, which he said was "a bit of a gut reaction" prompted by the story of a four-year-old who was hit in the leg by a stray bullet at the Fourth of July celebration at the Inner Harbor. He also proposed making the possession of a small quantity of marijuana a summary offense, punishable by a citation, but not jail time.

Webster lauded Rolley's proposal.

"I'm glad to hear that at least someone is putting some new ideas on the table for discussion," he said. "This needs to be looked at from a public health perspective, and not just using the law enforcement hammer."

Pugh said she would create a master plan for safety for the city, prioritizing streets and corners that need to be made more safe.

She hopes to expand a program called "Citizens on Patrol Without Borders," in which residents patrol neighborhoods other than their own and teach members of other communities how to start patrol groups.

Young, the home improvement worker, says city leaders must act quickly to create opportunities for ex-offenders like him who wish to earn an honest living.

"You never know what you'll earn one week to a next," without a steady income, he said.

Young said he's thought of driving for a sedan service, but has stayed away because he fears the temptation to ferry drugs to earn more money would be too great.

"Everybody knows somebody in the game if you're out here," he said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Steve Kilar contributed to this article.