Patrol battles nighttime pool break-ins

City officials say youths, adults taking dangerous after-hour swims

July 06, 1999|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN STAFF

Like federal agents on secret nighttime surveillance, city parks employee Portia Harris and Detective Don Gordon creep up on a cool expanse of blue water in West Baltimore. They burst from the front seats of their car as five children scale a fence to flee the Greater Model Pool on Saratoga Street in Poppleton.

Two are caught; three others bolt down a back alley faster than the two adults can run. The children's shoes, with socks stuffed inside, sit on the bench at the edge of the pool.

For Harris and Gordon, last night's chase is only the beginning of a long, sweaty night chasing after children, teens and adults who have sneaked into the city's pools for after-hours swims. The two are part of a team trying to end what has increasingly become a dangerous rite of summer in Baltimore: pool hopping.

"It's always been a common phenomenon," said Harris, assistant director of the Aquatics Division of the Department of Recreation and Parks. "It's not getting any worse, but it's not getting any better, and that's the problem."

In the wake of the death of 15-year-old Canvas Goods three weeks ago, city officials are enforcing trespass laws and charging infiltrators with property damage for prying apart or cutting through fences. They've added off-duty police officers to the almost nightly patrol.

Goods drowned June 17 after he and several friends broke into Patterson Park pool in Southeast Baltimore and jumped in. His friends said they tried to prop his head above water and save him but that he stopped breathing as he lay on the concrete just inside the fence.

Goods' death was the first in two years, but officials worry that the hot weather might bring more. Police arrested 126 trespassers last year and have arrested about 45 this year, including 15 last night.

Pool managers across the Baltimore area have reported increasing break-ins. Many have installed higher fences and elaborate security systems.

Problems have also been increasing during operating hours. Some pool managers require photo-ID passes and have set up "pool bouncers" to keep watch.

Every morning Harris said she gets a call from at least one of the city's 21 outdoor pools requesting a fence repair. The department has bought copious chain-link fencing to patch 8-foot holes or replace entire sections, she said.

As the night wears on, the pool patrol, caravanning in cars the department rents for the summer, sees trespassers get older, Overton said.

Patrol members said the hardest part is getting people to understand the danger.

"These kids are at real risk," said Gordon as he got back in his car after the chase. "They don't realize it can kill them. They just see cool water."

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