Undercover unit keeps close eye on downtown street crimes Plainclothes officers help catch thieves in the act

September 23, 1996|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

A portable phone left on the front seat of a pickup truck parked along Key Highway offered an irresistible target for thieves who wasted no time breaking out a window to claim their prize.

But the risky crime also attracted the attention of an undercover Baltimore police officer, who waited nearby and caught three people in the act. That led police to a stolen car ring and more charges against the three.

The officer is part of an initiative called the Street Crimes Unit, which is responsible for curtailing crime in downtown Baltimore, from the Inner Harbor to the Lyric Opera House.

Officers are not just looking for criminals. They also are searching out potential targets of crime. It could be a car parked on Cathedral Street with a camera on the front seat or a woman's purse left unattended at the Inner Harbor.

"If a person safely goes on their way, they will never know that a police officer was watching them," said Lt. John J. McEntee Jr., who is in charge of the Street Crimes Unit, which replaced the department's Inner Harbor Unit in mid-February.

"My crew will sit on a stoop and watch a woman and her purse," the lieutenant said. "If nothing happens, then great. But if it does, then we are in a position to intervene."

McEntee's squad is going out of its way to advertise. Posters are going up on downtown streets -- some already are up on North Charles Street -- that show a uniformed officer and three women.

The top of the poster asks: "Which of these is a police officer looking out for your safety?" The answer at the bottom: "All of the above."

"The idea behind the poster is public awareness," McEntee said. "The Police Department is doing more than what you see. There is more going on than officers walking or patrolling the streets."

The new unit began under a cloud of controversy. Members of the old Inner Harbor Unit complained that they had to reapply for their jobs, and the police union warned that crime could rise at the city's premier tourist attraction because the new squad had a broader territory to cover.

"There was a lot of misunderstanding," McEntee said, adding that crime at the Inner Harbor has dropped 30 percent this year.

Police say that most Inner Harbor crime is shoplifting or petty thefts. "There are few armed robberies," McEntee said. "Most of the crime is theft-related. These are the things that people don't even know occurred until it is too late."

In addition to using uniformed officers to patrol the Inner Harbor, the Street Crimes Unit uses undercover officers in many downtown areas and deals with everything from aggressive panhandling to purse snatching. They are working the upper end of downtown to curtail a rash of car break-ins.

Last week on Cathedral Street, near the Central Enoch Pratt Free Library, officers watched a car with a cellular phone on the front seat. After about an hour, three people who had tried to steal the phone were arrested.

In the Key Highway case six weeks ago, officers said the men who were arrested for breaking into the truck tried to escape in a silver Dodge Shadow, which had been stolen from Baltimore County. Police said they also traced a car stolen in Howard County to the group.

"They were stealing cars and using the cars to commit other crimes," McEntee said.

Pub Date: 9/23/96

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