The latest from Baltimore's public high-rise housing projects: 10 police officers, pinned down by sniper fire, had to be rescued yesterday by an armored car as gunmen fired shots from upper floors.
A week earlier, 9-year-old Ebony Scott was murdered and left in a trash bin at George B. Murphy Homes, another city-owned housing project. And a week before that, a drug user was shot to death in a robbery at the same building.
This year, at least six people have been slain at city high-rise projects. Residents at Murphy Homes even marched to City Hall Wednesday to demand better security.
But for housing officials, who say they are trying to come up with ways to battle the rampant crime, it seems to be a losing cause.
"What can we do? When you have police officers pinned down by snipers firing automatic weapons, and it takes a tank to rescue them, what the hell do you do?" said one city housing official, who asked not to be identified. The same official has been dealing with security concerns from Ebony Scott's murder. "This is a massive, massive problem that we cannot control," the official said."
When police made it inside Flag House Courts yesterday, along the 100 block of Albemarle St., the snipers had fled -- almost
surely to their apartments, police said.
Police said they believe about a half-dozen shots were fired from two of the Flag House Courts buildings, apparently in protest of officers who made a minor drug arrest at 1:30 a.m. on the street below.
An armored vehicle from the Prince George's County Police Department was brought in to help rescue the officers, eight from the city Police Department and two from the city Housing Authority, during a standoff that lasted about five hours.
The vehicle, similar to ones sent to the Persian Gulf war last year, was used "just to insure there was a safe evacuation of those officers," police spokesman Sam Ringgold said.
No one was injured, and it still isn't known whether the snipers were shooting at police or just firing in the air. No bullets or shell casings were found, Mr. Ringgold said.
The incident started after an off-duty police officer saw a passenger in a car flash a gun, Mr. Ringgold said. The officer called for backup, and two people in the car were seen making a drug deal in the 1100 block of E. Lombard St., he said.
Two people were arrested, and moments later, shots began ringing out from the buildings, which overlook the street, police said.
Officers took cover around the building and finally were rescued by the six-wheeled, 7-ton armored vehicle several hours later.
Prince George's Sgt. Chuck Cooke said his department often loans the vehicle to other police agencies. It can go 60 mph and was driven to Baltimore yesterday by highway.
Hours after the vehicle was used in the Lombard Street incident, it was put to work in a Prince George's County field, where a man was holding a gun to his head, Sergeant Cooke said. The vehicle allowed officers to get close enough to talk to the man without endangering themselves, he said.
Bill Toohey, a city Housing Authority spokesman, acknowledged that crime problems have reached a serious level at the four city-owned high-rises: Flag House in East Baltimore, Murphy Homes and Lexington Terrace in West Baltimore, and Lafayette Courts in East Baltimore.
He said the small Housing Authority police force -- he refused to specify their numbers -- is overwhelmed by the drug-related crime.
A private, unarmed security force was removed last year from the buildings because it had no effect on crime, Mr. Toohey said. In fact, drug dealers often fired at the guards sitting behind bulletproof glass, and from time to time, they punctured the glass, Mr. Toohey said.
At Murphy Homes, housing officials are planning new security measures in response to residents' requests, including turnstiles the doors, an intercom system and resident security patrols.
But those measures, officials said, are not going to stop the crime.
New strategies aren't unusual for dealing with crime at the projects. On May 28, Housing Authority police officers armed with semiautomatic weapons arrested 10 people in a sweep of 109 units at Lafayette Courts. The sweep was designed to find drug dealers who were "holing up" in vacant apartments there.
Some drug dealers, they said, had moved furniture into the apartments and had even changed the locks.
Mr. Toohey said the "sweep" has resulted in a noticeable decline in drug activity at the complex -- but it is likely that the activity has merely shifted to Flag House, he said.
Many of the high-rises have vacancies despite the large demand -- about 30,000 people in Baltimore -- for public housing. People ,, cite fear and the complexes' bad reputations as their main reasons for refusing to accept apartments.