The Crime Exchange
Mark Hughes in Baltimore: The trials of 'Baltimore's Boris'
In the latest instalment of our crime reporter's job-swap with his counterpart at 'The Baltimore Sun', the combustible relationship between politicians and the police force in the Maryland city comes under the microscope
Tuesday 10 November 2009
Yesterday, the first female mayor of Baltimore, Sheila Dixon, went on trial accused of stealing gift cards meant for the poor and using them to fund lavish shopping trips. If convicted she faces up to 15 years in prison. For reasons of race and distrust of the police, not many people in Baltimore think a jury will convict her. But in a city where mayors have a history of dabbling all too readily in the world of policing, crime and punishment, it would certainly be ironic.
In Britain, it took only a word in the ear from Boris Johnson and Sir Ian Blair's three-year tenure as Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police was over. There was fury in some quarters; the notion that a politician could hire and fire police chiefs was unheard of. Yet in Baltimore it is the norm.
The world of politics and policing was vividly portrayed in The Wire when the drama's young, ambitious mayor, Tommy Carcetti, fired his police commissioner, Ervin Burrell. As is so often the case, it was an example of art imitating life. In Baltimore, the previous four police commissioners left office after falling foul of the city's political administration – one of them lasted just 57 days in the job.
It is an administration, I experienced at first hand during my trip. On my second day at The Baltimore Sun, a conversation with a newsroom colleague was interrupted by the kind of announcement that, given my status as a newcomer to the city, took me by surprise. "There's someone on the phone for you," I was told. "He's from the Mayor's office."
What followed was a conversation during which the Mayor's spokesman told me how disappointed he was with my story in the previous day's newspaper – one in which I had repeated the well-publicised view that city officials were none too keen on the portrayal of Baltimore in The Wire.
He went on to explain that, despite his disappointment, he was happy to help me with anything I may need for my research while in Baltimore. But that did not extend to an interview with the Mayor, Sheila Dixon. Both she and the Police Commissioner, Frederick H Bealefeld III, were "too busy" to speak during my stay. The police blamed scheduling issues. Privately, I was told that the fact my trip would again raise comparisons with a fictional detective series was the commissioner's reason for refusal. Ms Dixon's reason may have been similar, or linked to her upcoming court appearance. But the party line was that it was business as usual and while the Mayor was not keen to meet with me one on one, I was more than welcome to attend of the many public appearances she makes each day.
So just before 9am on Saturday morning, I arrived at a tree-planting ceremony at Dewees Park, in the north of the city. I told the Mayor's deputy spokesman that I would like to speak to her about the crime and other issues, such as drug dealing and poverty, I had witnessed during my visit. He took the message to her. "What does he want?" Ms Dixon, 55, was overheard asking her spokesman. She said she did not want to speak about crime and added: "I'm planting trees today." With that she got on her bicycle, rode to her people-carrier and was driven away.
By contrast, the Deputy Mayor of London Kit Malthouse and the Met's Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson – both of whom are uncomfortable with comparisons between London and Baltimore – were happy to be interviewed for this series.
Political interference in the British police hierarchy only really became an issue when, on his first day as chairman of the Metropolitan Police Authority, the Mayor, Boris Johnson, told Sir Ian Blair that his resignation as Met chief would be required. Previously, those who held the nation's most-senior police job were allowed to stay for the duration of their term, which was fixed at five years in 2008.
The issue has since mushroomed. In September, Mr Malthouse provoked consternation, as well as a mild rebuke from Sir Paul Stephenson, when he claimed that Scotland Yard had been seized by the Conservative Party and that Mr Johnson's administration was now in control of the country's biggest police force. Sir Paul immediately denied this was the case and reminded the public that the Met was apolitical.
In Baltimore, such political independence would perhaps be considered a luxury, as would similar longevity. Just a few months into her stint as Mayor in 2007, Ms Dixon told Leonard Hamm, who had been police commissioner for three years, that he would have to resign. It is believed a rising murder rate was the issue. Her swift dismissal seemed to work. Last year, the number of homicides in the city fell to a 20-year low and this year they are on course to fall again.
Mr Hamm should not have been surprised he was asked to leave. His initial appointment followed the departure of his predecessor Kevin Clark, who was sacked by the then mayor, Martin O'Malley, following accusations that he was involved in a domestic dispute with his fiancée. Clark had been commissioner for 21 months. The claims were not proven.
Ed Norris was the commissioner before that. He was the first man in more than a decade to see Baltimore's homicide rate drop below 300 killings per year. But he left after two years in the job amid rumours that he had fallen out with the city administration. He was later jailed for corruption and tax fraud. Then there was Ronald Daniel. Hired by Mayor O'Malley on 22 December 1999, he tendered his resignation just 57 days later – again amid rumours of political clashes with his superiors at City Hall.
During my exchange with Justin Fenton, it has been suggested that British police forces could provide a blueprint for American departments to work from. The UK is, after all, at the forefront of such developments as DNA technology and the use of closed-circuit television surveillance.
But, as illustrated by the sacking of Sir Ian Blair and the now infamous remarks by Kit Malthouse, one trend which seems to be moving across the Atlantic in the opposite direction is the political accountability of senior police officers.
Tell us what you think of crime in the UK. Email us your experiences at firstname.lastname@example.org
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