Crime and fear foreshadowed 24 years ago

August 18, 1994|By MICHAEL OLESKER

On days like this, with the cops all over Guilford and the private security guards looking a little undermanned, some may remember George Rodney. He showed up in Highlandtown 24 years ago and made all the authority figures cringe. They failed to recognize the premature arrival of the future.

In East Baltimore in the winter of 1970, Rodney wanted neighborhood guys to help patrol the streets, and the police said no. They imagined Ox Bow incidents, vigilantes taking the law into their own hands. Rodney was a tough, high-strung guy who worked for the state and, in his off-hours, called himself a citizen protector. The cops said, Who needs protection?

For openers, said Rodney, Highlandtown bingo players. He said the winners kept getting hit over the head as they walked home. The cops said Rodney was making them look bad. They said Highlandtown was safe. They pressured Rodney out of his idea, which, 24 years later, now looks to be the future of neighborhoods where the police, for all their good intentions, simply can't cope any more.

In Guilford this morning, in a summer of three murders, in a week in which two elderly people are beaten to death in their home, residents ponder their faith in mere police departments. They thought they'd turned the corner a while back with private security patrols. Now they wonder: Maybe the patrols need to be beefed up even more, before everybody with a few bucks blows town.

In neighborhoods around Reisterstown Road and Park Heights Avenue in Northwest Baltimore, where the threat of crime chills all movement after dark, many find comfort in the Northwest Citizens Patrol, which has gotten assistance from city police. Are you listening, George Rodney?

Wherever he is these days, Rodney must feel a little vindicated. He tried to stop the future before it had fully arrived. Crime was about to change everything, and he thought he could head it off while it was still manageable. But his story is a measure of how far the city has fallen, where even the police understand events have overtaken them.

"Operation Escort," he called his service 24 years ago. "It's not vigilantes and it's not frontier justice. It's just people getting home alive."

He stood in a hallway at Patterson High School one wintry night, with neighbors gathered in an auditorium waiting to listen to him, and described a private patrol that would bring a sense of calm to a community beginning to feel jittery. The cops said Rodney was overstating the case. He talked of problems around Patterson Park. The police said they could handle everything.

In the communities like genteel Guilford, still feeling safe back then, the problems of Highlandtown were considered strictly of another, low-rent culture. Now the whole city's in such a psychological zone.

In the neighborhoods around upper Park Heights Avenue 24 years ago, a man like George Rodney was considered well-intended but uncouth. Nobody wanted citizen patrols, which indicated troubles people weren't ready to admit to themselves.

Today, some would say George Rodney didn't want to go far enough.

On Capitol Hill, the Congress wrestles with a crime bill that would beef up police and build more prisons. Nobody has much faith in Washington. At city police headquarters here, Commissioner Thomas Frazier rotates some officers, runs into political pressure, and backs off. Some who had faith in Frazier now find it shaken.

A quarter-century ago, George Rodney found himself getting newspaper headlines with a modest proposal for citizens to help protect their own streets. He had endorsements from the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the neighborhood churches, the Highlandtown Merchants Association. But the cops said no, and people who imagined their own neighborhoods were eternally safe called it dangerous, and Rodney backed off.

More than two decades later, in Guilford, they thought private security people would fix everything. They never imagined they lived in a world like George Rodney's. But this morning, they wonder who killed two elderly people.

Everybody in the neighborhood wants to remember better times. They want to bring back yesterday's sense of safety. Twenty four years ago, George Rodney looked like a vigilante. Today he looks like a visionary.

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