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Political Animal

No Simple Answers

I’ve lived in this city for 20 years, and for 15 of them Patricia Jessamy has been the state’s attorney for Baltimore City. During that time, I’ve seen crime go up and go down. I lived on the West Side at a time when I could walk my dog four blocks and find crack vials, syringe needles, and drug runners on every corner. When I first moved here, I heard gunfire so often I could determine the caliber of the round by the sound.

Often our own political opinions on crime depend on our proximity to it. For instance, my home has been broken into three times over the last 15 years, twice while I was home. Yet crime can go down (sometimes almost imperceptibly) and the constant drumbeat of crime in local media can still make you feel like you live in a war zone.

During that same 20 years, the city has also had four mayors—Kurt Schmoke, Martin O’Malley, Sheila Dixon, and now Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. While Rawlings-Blake hasn’t really been in office long enough to see how any of her policies might affect the city’s crime rate, there is enough information on the previous three to judge them on their record on crime and law enforcement.

O’Malley’s solution to crime and public safety when he was mayor was to go full-court-press on it—and for a while it seemed as if it was working. But when he moved on to run for governor, stories began to leak out about the thousands of arrests that never led to charges, many of which left citizens with stained arrest records for minor offenses. I consider it a plus for Jessamy that she spoke out against this intimidating police strategy.

But Jessamy has also become increasingly at odds with both mayors and police chiefs over the years, and that could be to the detriment of a citizenry that would prefer its executives put aside their differences and just get the job done, with as little drama as possible.

There are plenty of arguments that it may be time for a change in the state’s attorney’s office, and the very fact that Jessamy’s challenger, former federal prosecutor Gregg Bernstein, has raised more than $200,000 for his campaign says there may be a receptive audience for that idea.

But if there’s one thing that sticks in my craw, it’s the use of uniformed police officers in campaign ads. That’s a big neon warning sign in my book.

I’m as sensitive to the First Amendment rights of police officers as I am to anyone else’s, but there comes a point where other issues mitigate that right. A police uniform is a symbol; it’s a representation of the authority and power of the state. It is not to be used by individuals  for partisan gain. As I wrote in a previous column about a police officer’s right to privacy during the videotaping of a traffic stop (“Police State,” Political Animal, July 7), once the officer is engaged in professional duties, the rights of the citizen take precedence over an officer’s right to have a “private conversation.”

Using a symbol of the authority of the state to promote an individual’s political campaign—in this case, Bernstein’s use of a Police Department spokesman, Det. Kevin Brown, in a generic uniform with a patch saying “police” on it—went over the line. The Bernstein campaign’s argument is that Brown was off duty, which is fair enough. But if he is off duty, and wants to represent Jessamy’s opponent in a television ad as a private citizen, then let him dress like one, not like an ersatz officer. The only reason for the uniform is to make a visual appeal to the voters, to shout “I’m with the police, and I support Bernstein!” without  actually saying the words.

I’ve lived in police states and dictatorships in my lifetime. This is nothing like that—thankfully, we live in a democracy—but the way to maintain that is to highlight the bright line over which we should not step when it comes to the symbols of the state and the law in our society. That a former federal prosecutor, no matter how well-intentioned, would step over that line is a troubling issue for me.

Baltimore is a city with many deep, complex and systemic problems. There are parents not parenting, children not learning, schools not functioning, addiction, dysfunction, not enough money to throw at it and no answers about where to put money even if we had it. And this is only one small piece of that puzzle.

I can’t honestly advise you which way to go on this. Fifteen years is long enough for any state’s attorney, and there’s an argument to be made for change. But on the flip side, I truly despise any attempt to use law enforcement as a prop in a political campaign. Anyone who does this will cheaply use authority as a crutch in lieu of serious arguments.

There aren’t any simple answers here.

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