A white police car slides along a narrow East Baltimore street lined with forsaken three-story rowhouses, every other one splashed with graffiti. Several youths, their eyes slits against the afternoon sunlight, lounge in matching white T-shirts, sneakers and jeans in front of a vacant house.
The car pauses and the driver dips his head slightly toward the young man perched on the top step. He glares back, then gathers his hooded jacket and shuffles off with his companions.
Seemingly insignificant, the officer's action is part of a strategy to retake the city's worst streets.
In the year since Commissioner Edward T. Norris established a New York-style policing initiative in East Baltimore, a battalion of officers has made the corner-clearing nod ubiquitous. Officers vigorously disperse loiterers, spill out open containers of liquor and search pedestrians for contraband near crime hot spots.
The crackdown on minor illegal activity and debriefing petty criminals about serious crimes are key to achieving Norris' larger goals: curbing the drug trade, getting guns off the street and suppressing violence.
The commissioner didn't expect the effort to be popular, and officials braced for a flood of complaints from residents.
But the number of complaints from East Baltimoreans dropped as the incidence of crime in their neighborhoods plummeted, prompting Norris to make the initiative permanent last month.
"We were not being very successful [there] before the initiative," Norris said recently. "I wanted to prove that you could reduce crime in the worst part, the most dangerous part of Baltimore."
So far, the results appear to vindicate the campaign.
In the first six months of this year, 19 people were killed in the Police Department's Eastern District, 11 fewer than during the same period last year, before the initiative began. Shootings were down 15 percent; robberies fell 39 percent. Aggravated assaults dropped 24 percent. Incidents of rape decreased 18 percent. And the clearance rate for shootings has more than tripled, from about 20 percent a year ago to 65 percent.
Norris says the initiative was also critical to reducing the citywide number of homicides last year below the notorious benchmark of 300 that held for more than a decade.
Still, the 29 percent overall crime drop in East Baltimore has come at the expense of some residents who feel needlessly harried by the police tactics.
Vernadette and Ramone Copeland, who live near a former crime hot spot in the 2200 block of Prentiss Place, say the more visible police presence makes them uncomfortable.
Sitting on their front step enjoying a breeze on a warm afternoon, Ramone Copeland says they can't shake the feeling that they are being constantly watched.
"You know, since that cop got shot they've been more vigilant," Copeland, 26, says, referring to a killing in March. "I try not to be around too much. Best thing to do is not be on the corner in the first place."
The Copelands fall midway between the extremes of citizen reaction to the initiative. They're not as hostile as those who complain about harassment, or as welcoming as others pleased by the omnipresent squad cars. Both camps agree that black men, who make up the majority of the 93,188 people stopped by police citywide during the first six months of the year, feel targeted by the initiative.
A reporter and photographer for The Sun observed the initiative over several days, rode with officers in their cars and returned to interview residents.
On a map, the Eastern District resembles a child's toy locomotive headed east: It extends from the Jones Falls Expressway on the west to Erdman Avenue and Pulaski Highway at its eastern point, to 25th Street on the north and Orleans Street on the south.
A sixth of all city residents called the area home in 1990, according to the most recent available population data.
Two large cemeteries anchor the north: Green Mount Cemetery, the sloping 68-acre resting place of some of the city's most famous statesmen, artists and philanthropists, and the 100- acre Baltimore Cemetery, where ordinary residents have been interred for 150 years.
To the west is the state penal system complex, home of central booking, the city jail and the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center, known as Super-Max. The grounds of Johns Hopkins Hospital take up a large chunk of the district near its center.
Norris decided to focus on the Eastern District last summer after a man was fatally shot at a corner the commissioner had patrolled minutes earlier. He gave a youthful pool of 120 officers a Sisyphean mission: Roust people committing nuisance and drug crimes. Compile intelligence data to map out where crimes occur and suspects gather. Pressure those suspects and saturate those areas with police. Push criminals and their crimes out of the Eastern.
Criminals haven't taken the initiative sitting down.