Police conduct sweeps of plaza Vagrancy, public drinking in park near City Hall are targets of operation

June 01, 1998|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF Staff writer Tom Pelton contributed to this article.

Baltimore police swept the park in front of City Hall Friday and Saturday nights, handing out 14 citations for having open containers of alcohol, routing six squatters from cardboard boxes and charging five people on a variety of minor charges.

"We did this because City Hall is a showpiece building, it's the center of the city, a place that tourists come to see, and it's not right for the people who visit and play chess in the park to have to deal with beer bottles and vagrants," said Sgt. Craig Gentile of the Central District vice unit.

Police rousted vagrants and people drinking alcohol from War Memorial Plaza in the 100 block of N. Holliday St. from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. both nights. The homeless people who had been camping in boxes in the park were taken by police to shelters, Gentile said.

Gentile said the sweeps are made several times a year, whenever public drinking and other nuisance activities get out of hand. The weekend sweeps by police were a response to complaints from chess players and from a family who walked past the park Tuesday night after visiting the Inner Harbor and felt threatened.

Police are especially concerned that more teen-agers have been drinking in the plaza recently, often paying homeless people to buy liquor for them. "One 18-year-old was caught drinking both nights," he said.

Of the five people taken into custody by police, two were charged with drinking in public, one 16-year-old was charged as a minor in possession of alcohol, one person was charged with possession of narcotics and one was arrested on an outstanding warrant for theft, Gentile said.

One of Baltimore Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier's top goals this year has been to return a civil and non-threatening atmosphere to city parks and other public spaces.

Some of the chess players who regularly congregate at tables along the plaza's north side complained that police did not just roust those who were violating the law.

"I was playing chess, and I don't drink at all," said Purnell Hall, 34, who owns a home in the 900 block of East Madison St. and works as a cook in Frederick. "The police asked everyone to leave, and I said, 'Officer, I don't think that's fair.' "

Hall said that when the officer threatened to arrest him, he packed his chess set and departed.

"I've seen minor problems here. But they should arrest the individuals who are responsible," said Hall, who was engrossed in another chess match at noon yesterday.

Gentile said city parks are officially closed from dusk to dawn, so officers have the right to ask anyone to leave. But he said police generally tried not to disturb the chess players.

"If [Hall] was asked to leave, he was with someone who was drinking," the sergeant said.

Homeless people have long congregated on the plaza and slept outside the doors to the War Memorial. Several food programs regularly visit the area to distribute sandwiches and coffee, and some people visiting the park yesterday said the handouts draw vagrants to the area.

But Sgt. Michael Holcombe of Central District said the volunteers who distribute food see the plaza as a safe, central location for their charitable activities. Most of those who come for food move on quickly anyway, he said.

"They've been doing these giveaways for years, and they've gravitated to that location," Holcombe said.

Pub Date: 6/01/98

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