The need for more police presence and foot patrols was a common concern aired by residents at the mayor and police commissioner’s recent public safety forum on June 11 at the Virginia Baker Recreation Center in Patterson Park.
The forum was one of a series that Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Commissioner Anthony Batts have been holding across the city.
More than 125 southeast Baltimore residents, representing the Southeast District Police Community Relations Council and associations and tenant councils from Fell’s Point to Douglass Homes to Highlandtown, turned out to share their concerns.
“I don’t like to throw out numbers,” said Capt. Deron Garrity, commander of the Southeast Police District, “but violent crime is down in the Southeast. It’s almost scary.”
Batts said the last time he spoke to the Southeast community–not long after the murder of Kim Leto–he made a promise to stay in touch with the neighborhoods and encouraged community members to reach out to him.
The mayor said police have seen an increase in information coming from residents in the Southeast and have worked hard to have a more nimble police force and “more feet on the street.”
Batts noted that an increase in the Baltimore City Police pay–to make it more competitve with nearby counties–and a change in police scheduling would help reduce attrition in the police force. He said he was already getting calls from former Baltimore City police officers interested in returning.
Batts told attendees he had recently driven through Patterson Park and said police would be focusing on the impact of youth this summer.
“We can’t always have a solution that is police-centric,” he noted. “I’m a product of mentoring and I believe in it.”
The commissioner discussed the summer camp police are setting up for Baltimore kids and said he is applying for a grant to establish a long-term police mentoring program for youth in Baltimore city.
“We’re trying to set up relationships with kids,” he said.
Batts then mentioned the positive impact mentoring had on his life and called on the community to become involved with youth in their neighborhoods.
“Those of you who have been successful, show the kids what they can be,” he said.
The meeting then took on a question-and-answer format. Southeast community leaders had been asked to poll their constituencies and come to the meeting with a list of questions, concerns and comments.
Regarding the city’s new youth curfew, which will go into effect sometime in August, Batts said: “There’s no reason for 12-year-olds to be out at 2 a.m. People have to take responsibility for their children.”
Batts praised City Councilman Brandon Scott, who was in attendance, for getting the curfew bill through the City Council. Batts said he was raised by Southern parents, and that he himself had an early curfew as young man.
Regarding the controversial bill, Batts said: “We’re not giving kids a criminal record, we’re identifying kids who might be victimized.”
Chrissy Anderson, a member of the Fells Prospect Community Association, asked the mayor if the curfew centers, officially called “youth connection centers,” would be open 24 hours a day. The mayor replied that they would be—eventually–but did not provide a timeline.
One youth connection center will be located on North Ave. The other’s location is still to be determined, said Scott.
He later told the Guide that the Mayor’s Office on Criminal Justice has been visiting locations and trying to make a decision. Scott said that, eventually, the mayor hopes to have a youth connection center in each of the police districts.
Problem corners; foot patrols “as common as unicorns”
Brian Sweeney, president of the Highlandtown Community Association, told Batts that violent crimes get the most attention from the police in Baltimore, but lesser crimes can bring a neighborhood down, too. He brought up the intersection at Baltimore St. and Highland Ave., which is known for drug-dealing.
“We need more of a police presence,” Sweeney said.
To which Batts replied: “I’m very familiar with Baltimore and Highland.”
Garrity told Sweeney that the police were there but sometimes worked in unmarked cars and plain clothes, and that Baltimore and Highland was “public enemy number one.”
In a follow up email, Sweeney told the Guide that police have stepped up their presence at the corner of Highland and Baltimore.
“My concern is that this will just drive illegal activity into the alleys,” he said. “Unless criminals are apprehended and sufficiently punished, it won’t matter if the actual illegal activity takes place in plain sight or in the shadows. In order to keep a focus on problem areas, residents need to call 911 whenever they see or suspect illegal activity. [The] 911 logs will show trends which will help the police develop enforcement strategies.”
Batts offered to set up a ride-along for Sweeney and the Highlandtown Community Association.
Cory McCarty of Butcher’s Hill complained about a lack of police presence in his community.
“In Butcher’s Hill, foot patrols are as common as unicorns,” he told Batts and the mayor, adding that he and his neighbors report crimes but get blown off by 911 operators.
“Dispatch does not come under me. It’s not part of the police department,” said Batts, who expressed concern.
He later told the attendees he would arrange for the city’s dispatch office to send representatives to community meetings to talk with residents.
When David Leibensperger, president of the Patterson Park Neighborhood Association, had his chance to speak, he noted that the Patterson Park community was “a large part of [the mayor’s] tax base,” and acknowledged that he knew most of the police in the room.
“And that’s a good thing,” he said, but he added that the Patterson Park area also needs more foot patrols–and that the community’s Latino residents were particular targets of crime.
The mayor and Batts replied that the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs was currently scheduling a community safety meeting targeted to the Latino community, with Spanish interpreters.
Housing vouchers and alley-gating bureaucracy
Leibensperger next called on the city to develop a computer program, so that addresses belonging to persons who have committed crimes could be cross-referenced with addresses where Section 8 vouchers are used, so that voucher-users (who can lose eligibility for arrests or convictions) would not abuse the system.
He then went on to say that he’d like to see the city’s alley-gating bureaucracy educed.
Alley-gating, in which alleys behind houses can be gated off from non-residents, is one way to reduce alley thru traffic and deter crime, say proponents; however, the city’s current alley-gating process can take a year or more to complete.
“Alley-gating is a great idea,” said the mayor, “but we need to work on the implementation of it.”
At that point, Councilman James Kraft took the floor and told the group that he recently had a meeting with the Baltimore City Department of Transportation, and the city’s General Services Department, and that alley-gating—formerly under General Services–would now fall under DOT. Kraft also mentioned a new charter amendment that would make the alley-gating process more efficient, but did not elaborate.
Do some police discourage filing reports?
Butchers Hill resident Maggie Pedersen told the attendees that in her experience Baltimore police sometimes discourage crime victims from filing police reports.
“Police come and convince people not to file a report or press charges. This is more true of youth crimes,” Pedersen said. “We’re all scared here.”
Beth Manning, who lives in the Fell’s Point area, agreed with Pedersen and said: “We’ve seen officers not make arrests because they know nothing will happen to the youths. Kids are getting away with crimes.”
The mayor responded: “We need to find out who is doing this.”
Batts said that such behavior is unacceptable.
“Call back and ask to speak to a supervisor,” advised Garrity.
A resident asked. “Will they have a record of [which officers] were sent, and will they know they need to put a supervisor [on the phone]?”
Batts replied in the affirmative.
“And feel free to call internal affairs,” he added.
by Danielle Sweeney