Little Italy seeks armed anti-crime patrol

September 08, 1992|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,Baltimore Police DepartmentStaff Writer

Angered by the shooting of a young woman during a street robbery last week, some residents of Little Italy are calling for armed guards to patrol the streets in their neighborhood of narrow brick rowhouses and pasta restaurants.

"It's obvious that the city and the police department aren't competent in combating crime here or anywhere else. All the police do now is process victims," said Joseph Scalia II, a lawyer and Little Italy resident. "You get told that crime is worse elsewhere, and that isn't an answer. If we can pull it off, we'll hire our own armed security force and fund it from property and business owners."

Mr. Scalia said he would announce plans to privately finance the unorthodox armed patrols in about three weeks, although police questioned the legality of anyone other than off-duty police officers patrolling public streets.

Bounded by President Street on the west, Central Avenue on the east, Fleet Street on the south and Pratt Street on the north, Little Italy is one of Baltimore's last virtually all-white, inner-city neighborhoods.

While police statistics show a 7 percent decrease in violent crime in Little Italy over the first six months of 1991, some neighborhood residents are convinced the streets aren't safe. They point to a recent rash of muggings and break-ins, including the Aug. 31 robbery of Nicole DeMaio, 24, who was wounded near Pratt and High streets after refusing to give up her purse.

Some residents also were infuriated by the recent mugging of Margaret Petrella, 87, and a break-in at the home of John Pente, 82, who found an intruder hiding in a third-floor closet.

The incidents have ignited long-standing racial animosities in Little Italy, an insular neighborhood of about 900 residents. Some Little Italy residents say the street crime is caused by "outsiders" who are almost always black and appear to come from the Flag House public housing complex on the north side of Pratt Street.

"We don't go up there and bother them," said one elderly woman, who asked that her name be withheld. "Why should they come down here and bother us?"

Mrs. Petrella, the mugging victim, recalled the incident this way:

"I was walking up to the church and this young black fellow said 'Give me your purse.' He twist my arm, cut my hand and took my pocketbook. Then he ran to the corner and up to the projects."

Another victim, John Pente, got a scare when he discovered the intruder in the closet of the home his family has owned for more than 100 years. It was the second break-in at his home this summer. Although he does not know where the burglars live, he's convinced they came from the Flag House apartments.

"There's a lot of good people in the projects who don't want to live there either, but there's an element coming over and creating the problem," Mr. Pente said. "That's the case with everybody that's been hurt down here," he said.

"I'm tired of resting on the consolation that Little Italy is one of the safest neighborhoods in the city while crime goes on," said Richard Ingrao, 29, president of the Little Italy Community Association. "This has been the worst summer since I've lived here, and this last month has been the worst of all. Every legitimate option seems to result in nothing. We're so frustrated and angry that we're going to start taking care of ourselves. Believe me, there are people down here who can do it."

Harry Koffenberger, commander of the Southeastern District, said the hiring of off-duty police officers to patrol Little Italy was raised at a January meeting between police and the neighborhood, but was not pursued by residents or business owners.

He said the neighborhood is patrolled by a marked cruiser and a foot patrol walking a day shift and 4 p.m. to midnight duty. Those assignments frequently are complemented by mounted police and officers with dogs, he said.

Residents say police presence increases for a few weeks after a serious crime, then tapers off.

Domenico "Mimmo" Cricchio Sr. owns Da Mimmo Restaurant on High Street, just a few doors from the spot where Nicole DeMaio was shot. Mr. Cricchio, who lives next to his restaurant with his family, thinks a 10-foot chain link "wall" on the Jonestown side of Pratt Street would help.

"It's the same spot, the same spot all the time," he said. "One of my waiters was robbed for $85 two weeks ago on Pratt Street. They get your money and boom, back to the projects. If you make a wall 10 feet high and they can't run back. The mayor's got to do something about it or it's going to be bad, very bad."

Mr. Cricchio's wife, Mary Ann, witnessed the shooting while unlocking her front door with her 13-month-old son in her arms. She said business owners should bear the cost of hiring private security.

"The idea comes up all the time, but nobody has done it yet. They should gauge the cost by anyone who owns a liquor license," she said. "I feel the business people should pay. You don't want to ask old people on fixed incomes for money."

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