Living With Fear For Lives Touched By Crime, Feeling Safe Is A Thing Of The Past

June 02, 1991|By Susan Schoenberger

Crimes can be counted and cataloged. They have names -- murder, rape, robbery, assault. Fear of crime is harder to pin down. But it finds its way into every city home. It's why we don't just lock the door, we bolt it. It's why we install alarm systems and why we check the back seat of the car before getting in. It's why we can't sleep at night.

In Baltimore, residents have reason enough to fear crime: In 1990, 305 people were murdered in the city and 687 rapes were reported. Homicides in 1991 are on a record-setting pace.

But beyond the statistics are the victims -- both of crime and the fear of crime. The four people profiled below have all been touched by crime. They are hurt by it, afraid of it, and at the same time, they accept it as part of life in the city. Crime is so much a part of their lives that its absence would seem strange, and one, a policeman, would be out of a job.

The 9-year-old East Baltimore boy interviewed is typical of children who stay home alone after school. Drug dealers and guns don't shock him, but that doesn't lessen his fear that they might hurt him or his family. An elderly woman who remembers better times in West Baltimore can't walk out her front door without wondering whether someone will ransack her house.

A policeman in Baltimore's Western District tries not to think about the danger he faces each night on the street as drug dealers become bolder and the prison system more clogged. He jokes about it instead. But he says he's more cautious than the younger cops who don't have a wife and six children at home.

A Bolton Hill homeowner wants to stay in the city. But every year, the stories get more and more outrageous -- gun-point muggings, break-ins, stolen cars. Where, she asks, will it end?

IF REGGIE RICHARDSON could give shape and substance to his fear, it would look like the inside of his closet.

"When I go home and I'm by myself, next door the neighbors make a lot of noise. I run and lock all the doors. I lock the handle on the screen door and the other door. I run upstairs and shut my door.

"I have sticks in my room, and I hide in the closet. I just stay in the closet. I open the door a little and stay there until my mother gets home."

His fear rises from experience. It happens when you're 8 years old and you watch a man gun down another man on the street. That was last summer.

"It was nighttime and me and my friends were playing football, and my mother was sitting there keeping score of the game. I went to get the ball down the street. . . . I heard the shot and I saw a man fall to the ground. I couldn't really describe [the shooter], he was wearing all black."

One morning Reggie's fourth-grade class at Federal Hill Elementary School gathers to talk about the crime they've seen and their reaction to it. Most of them live outside the affluent neighborhood where they attend school, and they are eager to tell their stories. The words come rushing out.

A fourth-grader talks about the time her brother stepped on a drug needle, triggering a mad rush to the hospital. Another tells of how he sat on a couch and watched in silence when gun-toting drug dealers ran into his family's apartment as police chased them.

A third says she and her family check the locks on their door two or three times a night. She lies in bed, worrying that someone will climb up the fire-escape ladder that leads to their bathroom window. One boy says he and his brother killed their dog with a BB-gun because they mistook it for a robber trying to crawl in the dog door.

Reggie, who has frank eyes and a shy smile, raises his hand when asked about feeling afraid. He talks about the times when he has to stay at home with his 5-year-old sister after school while his mother works. Home is a project in East Baltimore.

"It sounds like somebody's on our steps. In my neighborhood, there's a lot of crime out there. There's a lot of break-ins," he says.

You don't show anyone that you have a house key, he says; they might follow you home.

Since Christmas, Reggie has felt safer. His grandmother, Alvidene Richardson, now babysits for Reggie and his 5-year-old sister most days after school. Because she lives in South Baltimore, he now attends Federal Hill.

Reggie's mother, Zena Richardson, a 25-year-old corrections officer, works an evening shift and picks the children up about 11:30 p.m. He worries sometimes about her job.

"Sometimes she talks about somebody breaking out of jail. . . . She tells me what it's like, the people in there that she works with," he says.

Reggie and his friends play cops and robbers.

"When we play, all of us usually are thinking about . . . what if we were real police and they were real crooks and how we would handle that situation."

MARGARET BROWN UNLOCKS the bolt to the door of her West Baltimore row house and peers outside. To her right are the only neighbors she still knows on the block she has lived on since the 1950s. To the left are strangers -- young, loud and insolent. She's afraid of them.

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