Police try to silence celebratory gunfire

New Year's crackdown yields 122 seized guns, more than 100 arrests

January 04, 2000|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

Some Baltimoreans aren't satisfied with welcoming the new year by popping champagne corks and watching fireworks over the Inner Harbor. They insist on creating their own noise by celebrating with gunfire.

This year, city police decided to confront the unofficial holiday revelers. Officers swarmed over the city and in 12 hours, they seized 122 firearms and arrested more than 100 people.

"These are some of the instruments of death in this city," said Police Commissioner Ronald L. Daniel, as he stood in front of a table covered with guns, including .357-caliber Magnum revolvers and 9 mm assault rifles.

Mayor Martin O'Malley said officers used to ignore the gunfire. But the city's new mayor is trying to reverse an image that Baltimore is a dangerous city, and he said his new police commissioner will not tolerate such inaction.

"They [officers] didn't hide beneath overpasses or take cover," O'Malley said at a news conference yesterday. "They used to simply shrug their shoulders as if it's just something that goes on. It doesn't go on anymore."

The guns seized will be test fired to see if they can be linked to other crimes. Those arrested face charges, including felony handgun possession.

Daniel described the guns seized during the weekend as "high-powered, dangerous and very expensive weapons."

The celebratory shootings have been a tradition in the city for about a decade. In 1996, the windows of a police cruiser were shot out and churchgoers in West Baltimore reported that gunfire drowned out their pastor's sermon. In 1992, during the Fourth of July holiday, a 50-year-old man was killed by a stray bullet as he watched fireworks from a rooftop on East Baltimore Street.

Police said the amount of gunfire that welcomed in 2000 was intense. At 12: 01 a.m., an officer jokingly radioed his dispatcher: "Be advised, in addition to all the gunfire, we have fireworks."

Officers in the Eastern District said they were showered with the remnants of shotgun shells as they stood in their parking lot. Police said they recovered 300 spent shell casings from five weapons at a single West Baltimore corner. Police said someone shot out an electric box on The Alameda with a machine gun, knocking out power to 51 homes.

As midnight hit, Housing Authority Officer Steven Henson confronted three gunmen shooting into the air in the 200 block of N. Bond St., in the Douglass Homes public housing complex west of Johns Hopkins Hospital.

He got out of his cruiser, only to have the gunmen aim at him. In an exchange of gunfire, a bullet grazed his sweater and nicked his bulletproof vest. A three-hour standoff followed, after which three people were arrested, including a 15-year-old boy.

Baltimore police dispatchers were swamped with calls. From 10 p.m. Friday through 5 a.m. Saturday, 516 people dialed 911 to report gunfire. Seventy such calls were made between 11: 55 p.m. and 12: 05 a.m.

One of those callers was Martha Calenzo, of Fort Bragg, N.C., who was visiting relatives on North Glover Street in East Baltimore. Moments after midnight, she said a bullet crashed through the second-floor skylight.

"We were having snacks and drinks, and we heard what we first thought was my nephew coming through the door," Calenzo said. "But then we saw the skylight glass broken and a 9 mm bullet on the floor."

Calenzo said the family immediately called police, but complained that it took officers more than five hours to respond.

"I was very surprised. In North Carolina, it's a serious crime to shoot into someone's home," Calenzo said. "Here, the policeman acted like it was a regular occurrence. He just took the bullet and said, `Yeah, this happens a lot,' then he left."

Sun staff writer Tim Craig contributed to this article.

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