New officer returns to streets of youth

Academy graduate: Hikeen Crampton is back in West Baltimore -- able to keep a close eye on the drug people he once feared and protect children much like himself a decade ago.

April 06, 2001|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

The snapshot shows a skinny, shirtless kid from a tough neighborhood wearing an oversized police hat, his outstretched arms embracing a child's fantasy of someday becoming a cop.

More than a decade later, the grown boy strikes a nearly identical pose, youthful exuberance replaced by a confident gaze, in another photo. This time, the police hat is his own.

Hikeen D. Crampton Sr., whose childhood bedroom overlooked one of the city's most notorious drug corners - Mosher and North Calhoun streets in West Baltimore - has returned home to exorcise the demons of his youth.

The 22-year-old graduated from the police academy Monday and requested assignment to the Western District, a rough slice of decaying real estate that Crampton says has only gotten worse since his days growing up at 1401 Mosher St.

His old neighborhood is pockmarked by vacant lots created by the city to rid streets of boarded rowhouses. "R.I.P." graffiti cover storefronts and dwellings - public death notices of the young men gunned down in the pursuit of drug profits.

"Everywhere you turn you see `Rest In Peace,'" Crampton said on his first day patrolling his old neighborhood, standing in front of his childhood home. "It reminds you of a cemetery - it just doesn't have any tombstones."

He is an adult now, living in the suburbs. But he has returned to the Western District with a gun and a badge and a uniform - power to arrest the very people who once tried to lure him into the deadly drug game with promises of flashy sneakers, fast cash and lots of women.

"Some people ask me, `Why do you want to come back?'" Crampton said. "I want to help my community."

Crampton, the youngest of 10 children, grew up listening to the sounds of the drug trade. Lying on his bed perched above the bustling corner, he watched the dealers and the addicts and heard the pops from guns. Classmates were arrested, shot or killed.

Each time a siren blared, Hikeen ran to his window. And on slow, hot summer days, he and his friends wandered over to the Harlem Park Elementary School parking lot, where officers from the "mighty" Western District parked to eat their lunch and write their reports.

It was there he befriended Officer Steven W. Sturm, who had been on the force about two years, and was a proud member of a group who called themselves "Big Tough Cops."

Each youngster adopted an officer. "He picked me," Sturm said.

Lunch turned into full-time mentoring. Sturm kept a constant eye out for his new friend, and when he wasn't working, he drafted colleagues to do the same. If Hikeen was hanging with the wrong crowd, or in the wrong place, Sturm made sure he got home to mom.

The kids would imitate the officers. Hikeen always pretended to be Sturm, and he relished every chance to wear the officer's hat.

"If some other kid had the hat on his head, he would throw a fit," said Sturm, who snapped the photograph of the shirtless Hikeen about 14 years ago and is now an officer in the police dog unit. "To see him today, it's wild. The big joke is that he'll make major before I'm a sergeant."

Crampton's mother, Carolee Boyer, said it was difficult to raise a family at Mosher and Calhoun.

"If parents don't keep behind their kids," she said, "the kids will go buck wild. Hikeen never dealt with a lot of kids on that block. He used to say, `They up to no good.'"

Boyer's other children include a security guard, a printing press supervisor, a mover and a church deacon. Her children now grown, she has moved from Mosher Street to another part of West Baltimore. "There was so much drugs and crime," she said.

Crampton graduated from Douglass High School, managed a McDonald's on Liberty Road and then went to the police academy.

His mother and Sturm, holding Crampton's 2-year-old son, Hikeen Jr., came to the graduation ceremony at the War Memorial Building across from City Hall.

There, the day's featured speaker, Circuit Judge David B. Mitchell, spoke of a recent survey of elementary school students in which few put police officers high on a list of people they could trust.

"This is terrible," Mitchell told the class. "And it is something only you can correct. This is done one child, and one officer, at a time."

Crampton now patrols the streets of his youth, keeps a sharp eye on the people he once feared and protects children much like himself a decade ago.

The officer returned to his old rowhouse the day after graduation. A handwritten sign in the new occupants' window states: "Please do not sit on steps!" He knows but a handful of neighbors, and many homes have either been boarded up or torn down - replaced by empty lots used as open-air trash receptacles.

As a child, Crampton was sometimes frightened by his own street. Now, as he pulls up in a police cruiser, the block quickly empties - community deference for the man in uniform.

"I would like to see big changes here," Crampton said. "But what I want to do I can't do myself. We need the community's help."

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