In an effort to ease increased concerns about crime in Baltimore, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke is lifting a Police Department hiring freeze so 50 additional officers can be placed on the streets by May.
Speaking to about 200 employees at the University of Maryland's downtown campus yesterday, Mr. Schmoke called crime the city's No. 1 issue. "We have to take some steps now to let people know we are doing as much as we can to fight crime," Mr. Schmoke said.
The new hires should sharply reduce the number of vacancies on the police force. In January, 86 jobs were vacant in the 2,967-person force. The city stopped filling the vacancies late last fall to save money in the face of state budget cuts.
Last month, a series of kidnappings from parking garages shocked the city. A 37-year-old Catonsville man, Vitalis V. Pilius, was slain and two other victims were stuffed into car trunks.
Those incidents heightened the fear of crime, Mr. Schmoke said, adding: "The perception is that crime is on the rise and is affecting the day-to-day decision-making of many people."
Mr. Schmoke has been attempting to calm the jitters of people who work downtown by scheduling a series of meetings with them. Another session is scheduled for today at noon at Mercy Hospital. Also, the mayor has set a citywide "town meeting" for Monday evening at the War Memorial.
At yesterday's meeting, Mr. Schmoke told the audience about plans to improve security downtown. The mayor said downtown "statistically is one of the safest areas in the city, although we have seen a significant increase in crime in recent years. More important, there is a perception that there is a crime problem there."
Mr. Schmoke said the city is working on several fronts to confront crime, including:
* Moving to generate funds to pay for extra security and other services in the downtown area. Specifically, the mayor is pushing a plan in Annapolis to raise city property taxes on commercial real estate by 5 percent throughout downtown Baltimore with the money raised, an estimated $2.3 million a year, going for the services in the commercial district.
* Performing security audits of downtown parking garages and having police scooters patrol inside the garages.
The audience seemed pleased with Mr. Schmoke's presentation.
"His plans sound good," said Lisa Guarnera, a University of Maryland employee recently victimized by a purse-snatcher. "I don't think things are getting worse, but I'm still scared. I never walk downtown at night by myself."