In Highlandtown, pridefully, with city's oldest cop

DAN RODRICKS

June 15, 1993|By DAN RODRICKS

I'm here with Officer John Boyter, during a bakery-hot afternoon in good ole Highlandtown, when a motorist stops on Eastern Avenue to tell us about the woman all drugged up in front of the movie house.

"She's up there by the Patterson, lying in the middle of the street," the man says. "She's all high on drugs. High as a kite. She's gonna kill herself."

Officer Boyter, that seen-it-all, heard-it-all look on his face, turns to his transmitter, strapped across his white short-sleeve shirt.

"Are we going down there to check the woman out?" I ask.

"Nah," he says. "That's about four blocks away. Radio car will get there much quicker."

He turns to the transmitter.

"Twenty-one thirty-three."

"Twenty-one thirty-three," a female voice cracks back.

"Information from a motorist of a woman lying in the street, Eastern and East," Boyter says.

Sorry, folks, but this edition of "COPS" won't be featuring bulky men in flak jackets kicking down doors. We won't even get a look at the woman lying in the street. All I can offer is good ole Officer John, almost 72 years old with 45 years on the Baltimore police force. He's the oldest cop in town. He'll retire at the end of the month.

On Boyter's daily beat, murders are rare, armed robberies rare, bank robberies rare. The neighborhood has drug activity but not as much as other neighborhoods, and certainly not the violence usually associated with it. There are purse snatchers and shoplifters, that sort of thing.

This is Highlandtown, which has changed, but not as drastically as most city neighborhoods.

And one of the steady forces has been Officer John. He wears Badge No. 945, and keeps a little gold guardian angel pinned to his shirt and lollipops inside his hat.

If the shopkeepers, business owners and bank tellers of Highlandtown don't see him walk by every couple of hours, they miss him. If the guys who run Shocket's don't hear the familiar tapping of Officer John's wooden espantoon on the aluminum siding below their store-front windows, they notice.

"Helluva man," says a big guy in an "M.R. Ducks" T-shirt. "Officer John's a helluva man. We need more poe-leece like him. I'm 46 years old and I remember him on foot patrol down by my elementary school on Linwood Avenue."

"Hey, John!" a guy yells from a Royal cab.

"Hi, John," a woman in a flowered dress says. "We're gonna miss you."

As hot as it is, Boyter doesn't even work up a sweat.

"I love it," he says. "I love foot patrol the best."

He used to have a post in Fells Point. He moved to Highlandtown a long time ago. He remembers when the neighborhood was as lively at night as it still is during the day.

"We used to have to have an officer directing traffic on Eastern Avenue," he says. "You'd have 50, 60 people crossing the street at a time up till 10 o'clock. And we used to have whole families sitting on their front steps at night."

Television, air-conditioning and fear of crime brought them inside. It happened in Highlandtown; it happened everywhere.

"It's been a good post," Officer John says.

He likes people, and he likes being the man they count on.

All these years in uniform and Boyter has suffered only one injury, caused by a fist to the face from a man he had taken to the hospital.

Boyter never had to fire his gun, though he had plenty of opportunities. Once, when he caught a young man in the act of burglarizing a bar, the suspect ran down an alley and ignored an order to stop. Boyter had drawn his pistol; he had an easy shot. But he held his fire. The burglar turned out to be the grandson of the owner of the bar.

Two years ago, Boyter saved the life of an 86-year-old woman who lived by herself on East Avenue. The woman had collapsed in the vestibule of her rowhouse on a Friday afternoon. It was Boyter, the following Tuesday morning, who sensed something wrong, went to the woman's house and found her on the floor. "I thought she was dead," Boyter recalls. "We took her to Church Home Hospital and I stayed with her. A doctor told me two more hours and she'd have been dead."

When the woman was awake and feeling better, she asked Boyter how he knew she'd been in trouble. He pointed to the pin on his shirt and said, "I'm your guardian angel."

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