Till war on crime is won, battle to lure visitors is lost

MICHAEL OLESKER

April 19, 1992|By MICHAEL OLESKER

When Pat Moran walked out of her house in the 800 block of Park Avenue one recent morning, she found vials of crack cocaine lying on the ground. She put them into a plastic bag, and she kept them, and she fumed about what to do with them.

Last week, she decided: She shoved them in front of the mayor of Baltimore.

"Why is this happening?" Moran demanded.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke swallowed hard and said nothing.

Moran, eyes blazing, copper-colored hair whipping about her face, hopped to her feet in Vesuvian fury. For a living, she runs the Charles Theatre. For the moment, she seemed ready to stage a very emotional movie scene.

"I spend $5,000 a year in taxes," said Moran, voice crackling with anger, "and I walk out of my home and get empty drug vials. I'd like to know who to give these to."

"Let me see them," the mayor said softly.

He was standing with some of his top police in a room at the Walters Art Gallery. The police wore blue uniforms and looks of official concern. The mayor took the big plastic bag from Pat Moran and held it at its top, between two fingers, the better not to become contaminated.

"These were in my garden," said Moran.

"This is how they sell crack," the mayor muttered, nodding his head.

"Well, I wasn't using it for my garden," said Moran.

Around the room came muffled laughter, an easing of the confrontational tension. But it didn't last. These were all downtown business people, gathered Thursday afternoon to talk with the mayor about their biggest trouble: crime, and the perceptions of crime, and the struggle to convince people that it's safe to come downtown when many worry that it's not.

They issued him a report, called "A Prescription for Public Safety," which was put together by a group called The Downtown Security Task Force. It calls downtown "the heartbeat of Baltimore."

But it's got serious cardiac troubles. In that 1.4 square-mile area live 15,000 people, plus 250,000 people who arrive each day to work or shop or visit museums or attend class or sightsee.

Or get hurt.

"Downtown," the report declares, "suffers from a malaise found with increasing frequency throughout American cities in the last decade of the 20th century. The malaise results from the perception that, despite extraordinary activity, despite the wide range of economic, cultural, entertainment and educational opportunities, despite the vast number of people on the streets each day, downtown may be unsafe."

The last four words are printed here in italics, because that's the way they're printed in the report. The intention is to make them stand out, because they are the nub of this whole business: Perception isn't necessarily reality. Things aren't as bad as they seem.

Statistically, it's a fact. Taking into account not only residents but all of the daily workers and visitors, the crime rate within downtown's borders is generally only about one-third the rate of the city as a whole.

But the difference is options: You find crack vials outside your home, you feel anger and vulnerability, but you don't necessarily put your house on the market.

You cross paths with the evidence of crime outside, say, a downtown restaurant, and you seek a restaurant in some other neighborhood.

For both reasons, on Thursday, we had people like Pat Moran and her bag of crack vials. And the woman from the 800 block of Cathedral St., who glared at the mayor and told him, "They're selling crack 24 hours a day on my street." And a man from Lovegrove Street who told of two neanderthals who jumped an old lady and shoved her into the pavement.

"The police should have shot both of them," the man declared, and now across this room was the sound of hands coming together, and the applause built, and the mayor of Baltimore began to get a little flustered.

He understands their anger, but all criticism is an implicit shot at him. He deserves credit for letting them vent their frustrations, for showing them that he's listening. But it was getting a little too hot now.

"This ridiculous national drug policy," said Schmoke. "That's what encourages people to do these things."

It's the faintest echo of the mayor's early pitch for changes in the drug war -- make it a health fight, not a criminal war which has no end in sight -- but he's learned not to dwell on it now, it's too controversial.

"We made 14,500 drug arrests last year," he said. "But the whole prison system only holds 19,000 people. So where do we put all these people we arrest? There aren't enough cells in this state."

The answer? Higher police visibility. Better lighting. More cooperation with private security agencies. Jobs for people who rob strangers out of economic desperation.

These are just words, and not entirely satisfactory.

"It's a small percentage of people," the mayor said. "They've lost values, and they've lost their sense of caring. There's a meanness, a viciousness. They've become predators. But it is a tiny percentage of people."

The words are meant to encourage. The percentages are meant to give hope. But then Pat Moran shows up with crack vials and the fellow from Lovegrove Street talks of two guys jumping the old lady, and the stories just blow away all of the

cheering words.

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