Police changing Inner Harbor guard New unit will cover broader area, include undercover officers

January 18, 1996|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

Baltimore police are changing how they protect the Inner Harbor, a plan they say will boost security at the city's premier tourist attraction but which critics claim could actually lead to more crime.

The department is replacing the 24-member Inner Harbor Unit with the new Street Crimes Unit, which will be a mix of two dozen uniformed and undercover officers who will cover a wider area and shift their times of coverage.

Maj. Art Smith, head of the tactical section that oversees the Inner Harbor Unit, said the new plan represents a "significant increase" in police protection and gives officers "more crime-fighting flexibility in the downtown area."

But the president of the police union, Officer Gary McLhinney, said safety at the Inner Harbor is in "serious jeopardy" because the enlarged boundaries could leave the Inner Harbor shortchanged.

"The concept of a downtown street crime unit is an excellent one, but we should not do it at the detriment of the Inner Harbor," he said. "The Inner Harbor is Baltimore's bread and butter. If I was a merchant, a boat owner or a tourist, I would be concerned."

Crime at the Inner Harbor was an issue most recently in August, when a man held up four stores at gunpoint, prompting some merchants to close their shops early.

Downtown last month, two gunmen commandeered an airport shuttle van from a hotel and stole luggage and money from two Florida tourists.

In September, police arrested a suspect in the Inner Harbor holdups, but only after getting help from the Robbery Unit. Police said the new unit would be able to handle such investigations on its own.

Mike Durham, president of the merchants' association that represents the 200 stores in the Light and Pratt street pavilions and the Gallery, is reserving judgment until he sees the final plan.

"If there is less police down here, we would be concerned," Mr. Durham said. "I'm going to give them the benefit of the doubt. The commissioner thinks this will be best. More than anything, as a merchant, just police presence is a big deterrent to crime."

Joan Davidson, a spokeswoman for the Rouse Co., which runs Harborplace, said the details are incomplete.

"We are pleased that the Police Department is focusing on the Inner Harbor," she said.

"We look forward to a more effective and efficient policing plan."

Police officials have ordered all 24 officers in the Inner Harbor Unit to reapply for the new unit, which could be formed next month. Major Smith said some of them will be retained, and others will be reassigned to police districts.

Traditionally, the Inner Harbor Unit has been made up of older officers who walk a foot patrol. The new unit will use officers on foot and bicycle as well as undercover decoys posing as tourists but hoping to get robbed.

"This is a significant upgrade in our law enforcement effort," Major Smith said. "People aren't going to know who is who down there. The guy in the short pants and the camera could be a cop."

He said some merchants are wrong in assuming that the police substation between the Light Street Pavilion and the Maryland Science Center is going to close. He said the department is looking for a bigger office.

Police commanders say the new unit will be more effective at fighting crime that typically occurs at the Inner Harbor, such as a recent rash of car phone thefts, and eliminate the need to call in help from other police districts.

Officers in the unit will work mainly during peak hours, while shops and restaurants are open.

The Central District police station will be responsible for patrolling the Inner Harbor overnight, unless there is a specific crime problem occurring during those hours. The harbor unit patrolled 24 hours a day.

That, Major Smith said, means a net increase in officers when they are most needed.

"I don't see how it will be spread too thin," he said.

Undercover officers in the new unit will be "flexible to branch out" all over downtown, he said, and that has drawn criticism.

"It's a concern of mine," said Sgt. Andy Leso, who has worked the Inner Harbor for 14 months. "How far will they have to go? Will they be diluted? Officers will still patrol the Inner Harbor."

The 53-year-old sergeant, like many others in the Inner Harbor Unit, has served for more than two decades and requested his present assignment after working for nine years in the Southwestern District, hoping to finish out his career in a less stressful beat. He has applied for the new unit. He described his colleagues as anxious about the pending changes.

The Fraternal Order of Police has filed a grievance against the department for having officers reapply for positions. Officer McLhinney said that officers should be assigned to the Inner Harbor all day and all night.

"During the late night hours, it is the presence of police that deters crime," he said. "If criminals see that no one is watching those businesses, they are going to have a field day. An undercover officer at St. Paul and Baltimore streets isn't going to help much if someone grabs your purse at the Light Street Pavilion."

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