Police foot patrols have their price Neighborhood officers taken from other duties

April 26, 1992|By David Simon | David Simon,Staff Writer

Suddenly, the future of the Baltimore Police Department shows itself in the ages-old image of a lone foot patrolman, walking down West Fayette Street, a nightstick bouncing against a new uniform, a Kevlar vest putting weight into each stride.

The locals take notice.

"You wearin' a uniform," says one of the heroin dealers. "What happened?"

What happened is that "community policing," the Baltimore department's blueprint for the next decade, has arrived in the Western District, and as a result, Officer Timmy Lee Devine is back in uniform, walking a foot post across 10 square blocks.

In a single shift last week, Officer Devine rousted dozens of young dealers from two drug markets, watched users wander into shooting galleries, bantered with neighborhood kids, wrote up a burglary report and chatted up managers and cashiers at groceries and carryouts.

He made no arrests. The dealers can see Timmy Devine coming. When he goes to the west end of his post, the dealers momentarily scatter from Vine and Monroe streets; when he goes east, the shop closes up on Vincent Street. If the patrolman goes back and forth a little too quickly, the dealers and their package go just north of Lexington, a block off the foot post.

At one point, Officer Devine sees a stray white kid coming out of Vincent Street. Knowing that there is, only one reason for him to be this far north, he tries to call him over.

"HEY, BUDDY," he shouts. "HEY, BUDDY, I WANT TO TALK TO YOU."

But the kid begins running. He's not about to lose freshly purchased dope to some lumbering beat cop wearing a gun belt and a body shield. At the sound of Timmy Devine's voice, the lookouts come to life.

"FIVE-OH. FIVE-OH ON MOUNT STREET."

For a short time, the dealers flee. For a short time, the package disappears. But that, according to the department's new mandate, isn't for Timmy Devine to worry about. He's not out here to lock up dealers and junkies. He's out here to be a presence, a reassuring sign to this beleaguered neighborhood. He's planting the flag for the police department.

This is the future:

"In each neighborhood of the city," declares a consultant's report adopted by the police department, there should be "a police officer assigned who has intimate knowledge of problems and issues of the area, is familiar with residents and their children and is skilled at collaborating with residents and business people on solving important neighborhood concerns."

In the last decade, one urban police department after another began experimenting with foot patrols, neighborhood-based police substations and a greater emphasis on community relations. Some departments, such as the New York force, found that these efforts required a significant number of new officers. Others, such as the Houston department, are moving away from the experiment after dismal failure.

An experimental start

In Baltimore, the mayor and police commissioner have embraced community policing but have yet to implement a citywide plan. But in the Western District, Maj. Victor D. Gregory took a first step two weeks ago by creating foot patrol posts in five high-crime neighborhoods and reassigning 15 officers -- Officer Devine among them.

"We know this is what the department is going toward," says Major Gregory. "I felt that it was time to try to be a little innovative and see what comes out of it. I want to see what effect this move has on these neighborhoods."

On Officer Devine's new post, perceptions are already positive. But that is to be expected in a time when foot patrols are what every neighborhood association, business and activist citizen wants.

On his day shift last week, when Officer Devine walked into a grocery at Baltimore and Gilmor streets, he was greeted warmly by the cashiers and manager. A security guard was shot to death in a robbery several months ago. The memory is fresh, and the workers discussed the court case with the patrolman.

Up the block on Fayette Street, he stopped inside a deli and chatted up the young owner, an entrepreneur who renovated the corner property and then bought an adjoining rowhouse and boarded up the windows to prevent junkies from loitering.

"How's it going?" asks the officer. "You having any more trouble?"

A while back, one of the neighborhood dealers pulled the deli owner up on the street, telling him that he was getting too big for the neighborhood. The businessman called police the next morning, afraid to open the store.

"It's OK," says the owner, smiling. "I'm all right."

Officer Devine is good at showing the colors. He knows the terrain down here, knows the criminals and a good share of the residents. He tries hard to mingle with the residents but notices that he usually has to initiate the conversation. Only a handful of people feel comfortable talking openly to a police officer.

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