~TC Baltimore police assigned special units to patrol shopping center parking lots near the edges of the city yesterday to try to stem the tide of armed robberies at supermarkets and fast-food restaurants that has been rising since last fall.
The move came one day after holdups by gangs of armed men at two more supermarkets brought the area's total to 19 and four days after police thought they had broken up the gang responsible for the robberies with six arrests Friday night.
Now, police think they are faced with copycats trying to imitate the other gang, spokesman Dennis S. Hill said yesterday. The robberies Monday night at a Giant Food in the 5900 block of Reisterstown Road and a Valu Food Market in the Frankford Plaza Shopping Center were committed by different groups of people, he said.
Under the city police plan, tactical units and helicopter patrols will supplement regular patrols. In addition, foot patrol officers are to be assigned near fast-food restaurants in high crime areas where similar robberies have occurred.
The patrols are to be coordinated with similarly assigned units in Baltimore County, where many of the robberies have occurred.
Meanwhile, supermarket employees anxiously eyeball suspicious customers, especially those who come in groups of four or more.
"Our associates are told: 'When you see groups of four or five come in, call the police,' " said Gino Pierazio, assistant manager at the Super Fresh on Ridgely Road in Lutherville.
He said a cashier called police Monday evening because she spotted three people sitting in a car in front of the store for what seemed a long time with the engine running and the lights on.
"They came and checked them out, but I guess they were all right because they let them go," Mr. Pierazio said.
"We're all worried," said Charlotte Rutkowski, a cashier at Mr. Pierazio's store. "But you can't let it get to you. You have to do your job."
At the Super Pride Market in the 1700 block of Northern Parkway, "all the cashiers are scared," said Dionne Collins, a cashier. "I'm just going to be cautious and do what they tell me if they come here."
The store has escaped unscathed, while others nearby have been robbed.
That's small comfort for Ernest Robinson, the co-manager, who said that he feared the odds were against him. "It's a bad feeling when you have to come to work and be afraid," he said.
Ms. Collins said customers talked about the robberies almost daily, shopped for small orders and left the store as quickly as possible. But customers at the Super Pride and other stores seemed oblivious to danger.
"I haven't experienced any fear," said Jules Melvin at the Super Pride.
"If it gets closer, I'll worry about it," said James Wynn, who had stopped at the Valu Food Market on Belair Road and Fairview Avenue in Fullerton, a few blocks from the store that was robbed Monday. "It concerns me, but you gotta go grocery shopping."
"I don't think there's any immediate danger," said Robin Boardley as she got into her car at the same supermarket. "I'm not particularly worried about it unless it happens at the store where I shop."