Drop in downtown crime praised

March 24, 1995|By Peter Hermann and Tia Matthews | Peter Hermann and Tia Matthews,Sun Staff Writers

Michele Flanagan's parents didn't want her to visit Baltimore.

"They said it wasn't a good place," said Ms. Flanagan, 19, who attends a small college in Connecticut and was visiting Harborplace yesterday. "They perceived it to be like New York."

Perceptions like this are under attack by the city's business and tourism bureaus, who are out to prove that visiting downtown Baltimore is not synonymous with being mugged.

"Fear of crime is a national phenomenon," said Laurie Schwartz, president of the Downtown Partnership, a private organization that promotes businesses. "To counter that, we need to constantly reassure the public that they are safe."

The partnership's job, Ms. Schwartz said, "is to create a positive public environment for everyone who uses downtown. The more we do, the better people will feel."

Yesterday, the partnership celebrated the second year of its Clean and Safe Program, which is funded by a business surcharge that raises $1.7 million a year. It pays for 28 workers to clear away trash and for 44 public safety guides to patrol downtown streets.

At a breakfast filled with song and revelry yesterday, officials -- including Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier -- praised the program and its link to the Baltimore Police Department as instrumental in making the Inner Harbor and Harborplace safe attractions to visit.

"We've seen that our streets are being cleared of the bad guys on a more frequent basis," said Gary A. Oster, general manager of the Stouffer Renaissance Harborplace Hotel. "I know that we're making life pretty uncomfortable for aggressive panhandlers, prostitutes and drug dealers.

"I think that people perceived that there were crime issues," said Mr. Oster, co-chair of the partnership's public safety committee. "Now the perception is that crime is being told to go somewhere else."

Ms. Flanagan -- who came to Baltimore from a friend's house in Delaware -- said she wasn't afraid of any crime. "I wouldn't be bothered to go out at night," she said.

Buddy Alleva, a coin collector from Long Island, N.Y., who has visited Baltimore several times, said he has never thought of the city as crime-ridden.

"I always found the Inner Harbor to be a nice area," he said. "Every once in a while you'll see a few panhandlers, but besides that I've never had any trouble."

Many programs to combat crime either are in place or in the planning stages. An 8-by-12-foot police kiosk is being built near Lexington Market. Officers are riding bicycles dressed in bright, blue uniforms.

Business owners are encouraged to light their storefronts, and the public safety guides provide escorts to workers. The guides service has been used 600 times since it began in November.

The safety guides in their red-and-blue uniforms give directions to wayward tourists, change tires for stranded motorists and help police catch criminals. In two years, they have assisted police officers 640 times, leading to 58 arrests.

Fear of crime downtown intensified last summer, particularly at Lexington Market, where a series of well-publicized incidents -- including a fatal shooting and a hatchet attack -- focused unwelcome attention on the area. Also, police caught a man responsible for several armed robberies on Inner Harbor skywalks.

"Sure there's crime downtown," the police chief, Mr. Frazier, said yesterday. "And there always will be, like there is in other areas."

But, he said, "I think that we're on a positive track both in the crime and fear of crime issue. We pay particular attention to the more touristy areas, particularly when we have conventions in town, because it is important for the continued vitality of the city."

Statistics show that major crime dropped 9 percent in downtown Baltimore from 1993 to 1994. Assault and robberies dropped from 663 to 474 -- a 29 percent decrease -- and assaults went from 171 to 151, a 12 percent decrease.

One problem is drug users who break into cars. "When we arrest them, they tell us that if they see it in the car, it belongs to them," said Maj. Leonard Hamm, commander of the Central District police station.

Other crimes, the major said, may show up in the statistics, but give a skewed picture of crime in his district. He said many robberies and assaults occur early in the mornings in areas not frequented by most visitors. The hatchet attack, he said, was a private dispute between two homeless men, not a rampage on downtown streets.

"What we are going to work on next is the perception of fear in the downtown area," Major Hamm said. "Little by little, we are chipping away at that."

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