From close up, decrease in crime is harder to see Police presence is high near Patterson Park, but residents are wary

April 18, 1997|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Peter Hermann contributed to this article.

Joan Townsend, manning the counter at Block's pharmacy outside Patterson Park, thinks back to the last time she actually walked through that green oasis.

"I used to take my boy over there," says the lifelong resident of the neighborhood, "when he was a baby."

That baby is now 30 years old.

Townsend rolls her eyes at the prospect of returning soon to the park that is the somewhat tarnished jewel of her neighborhood.

It's not that she's so easily scared: This is a woman, after all, who threw a would-be robber's note demanding money back at him and said, "No way!"

But Townsend is among the residents of this area of southeast Baltimore who haven't felt safe for a number of years, and it will take more than yesterday's news that violent crime had dropped 20 percent to change that.

"I would be hard put to say it's improved as much as they say it has," says Townsend, who lives a couple of blocks from the pharmacy at Linwood Avenue and Baltimore Street.

Townsend's comfort level about the neighborhood involves not just crime but general civility.

"It's the kids," says Townsend, 58. "Some very nice parents come in here, and their kids are all 'yes, ma'am,' 'no, ma'am.'

"But the other ones -- they're disrespectful."

As if on cue, a couple of police cars pull up on Linwood, lights flashing, and officers jump into a crowd of rowdy middle-school students who are milling around the bus stop on Baltimore Street.

Soon, six cars have descended on the corner as officers try to sort out a dispute.

"Every day, it's a fight," one officer tells Block's owner Sam "Doc" Lichter, with a sigh. "Soon, it'll turn into a fatal."

The kids disperse without incident, though. For employees at Block's, which has been in business since 1933, the cars and officers are a welcome sight.

Some move, some stay put

The workers here are a microcosm of the city: Some used to live in the neighborhood but moved to the county after tiring of vandalism and other crimes. Some, like Townsend, refuse to be moved, and, in fact, joke about some of the more colorful characters and incidents in their neighborhood.

"There was one hooker who used to come in here every day for an orange soda, and then I didn't see her for a while," Townsend recalls. "Then I turn the news on one night and there she is, being arrested in one of those sweeps. She's been coming around again, though."

Townsend credits police, though, with clearing the nearby streets of suspected drug dealers.

The Patterson Park area has been the focus of an intensive community-police program. Once a week, community activists meet with police and discuss specific problems -- say, open-air drug dealing. Police then respond.

On Tuesday night, for example, the Southeastern District had 45 officers in the area, including three on bicycles in the park and undercover drug, gun and vice squads in neighborhoods around Patterson Park.

Keeping the park safe is a pivotal part of policing the area, as Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier has made taking back public spaces one of the key elements of his plan to rid the city of violence.

Prostitution remains one of the neighborhood's most chronic complaints. A local weekly, the East Baltimore Guide, prints names of those arrested for prostitution and their customers, trying to shame some of them away.

Editor Jacqueline Watts thinks it's helping: Some four years ago, when she started naming names, the list had about 80 names. "Now, on a normal week when there isn't a special sweep, there might be eight or 10 names," she says.

Sgt. Ed Coleman spent part of the night cruising Baltimore Street, chasing prostitutes off corners. He came across a middle-age woman walking down one lane. "I'm going home," she said.

"You've got to walk the other way," Coleman told her, shooing her up a side street. "Baltimore Street is mine tonight."

It is this kind of street-level policing that has helped cut back on crime, police officials say. In fact, the Patterson Park area has experienced an even greater drop in crime than the city overall, they say. A study of the area by the University of Maryland's Urban Studies and Planning Department found that, between 1995 and 1996, burglaries and aggravated assaults declined 35 percent and 23 percent respectively.

The long view and the short

Maj. Timothy Longo, commander of the Southeastern District, says it's "human nature" for residents' perception of safety to catch up slowly to reality. Additionally, people tend to take the long view, and remember back to their childhoods when the streets indeed were safer, rather than comparing the current state to a couple of years ago.

"If I sit back and think of the way it was when I was 5," Longo says, "of course there's a big difference. But a lot of things affect the way it is now.

"I'm not thinking about 50 years ago, I'm thinking about two years ago, and where we were before we became involved in the community and became more aggressive about the area."

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