Guides and guardians

Safety: A small force of guides makes its presence felt on the streets of downtown Baltimore.

January 16, 2002|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

When Junius B. Gary is on the beat as a downtown public safety guide, he takes the bitterness with the gratitude.

Here's Yvonne Knight, after Gary gives the lost Landover woman directions: "Oh, God, I'm going to have a wonderful day. Thanks!"

Here's a man mad at Gary for thwarting his panhandling: "Hey, take my word for it, you can train a monkey to do what he's doing!"

The first reaction makes Gary beam. To the second, he smiles wanly and says, "Another satisfied customer."

Gary, a 44-year-old Baltimore native, is a foot soldier in a police-trained, business-funded army of men and woman paid to keep tabs on downtown's streets seven days a week.

Now in its 10th year under the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, the $1.6 million-a-year program aims to make the city center safer and friendlier - and to make it feel that way. The mere presence of their purple-and-black uniforms, supporters say, adds to the public's comfort.

The 33 guides - 42 in summer, when tourists arrive - fill myriad roles. They watch crime hot spots and help police identify witnesses or suspects; escort people to cars after dark; give out-of-towners directions and restaurant tips; try to deter panhandlers and assist the homeless.

"They do an outstanding job," says police Maj. J. Charles Gutberlet III, commander of the Central District. Not long ago, a guide helped break up a fight near Lexington Market, and police made an arrest.

If police officers aren't always appreciative - and Gutberlet says some rookies think their badge and gun make them "better than anybody else" - most see the guides as allies, he says.

Jeff Singer, chief executive officer of Health Care for the Homeless, says the guides seem to spend more time now linking the homeless to services than just trying to move them along. That, he says, "sounds like progress."

"Years ago we got complaints, lots of them," says Singer, noting that the complaints led to a failed lawsuit aimed at ending guides' verbal tactics. "At least for the past year, I can't recall hearing any."

The Downtown Partnership, a business group, carefully compiles the program's statistics. In a typical week, the guides give 26 safety escorts, help police six times and handle 3,005 "general citizen assists" for people who are lost or have car trouble.

The partnership also keeps fan mail. One downtown employee wrote to thank Gary and a fellow guide for guarding his sport utility vehicle after he absentmindedly ran into his office for a few hours with the doors unlocked, keys in the ignition and the engine running.

The guides, many of whom aspire to police work, do not have guns or arrest powers. They carry radios linked to Public Works Department dispatchers, who work in the same building as 911 operators. Police oversee part of the six-week training regimen, and program director Bertina Silver is a retired homicide detective. Starting pay is $17,000 to $20,000.

Each day starts with roll call. Guides are assigned patrols, told about downtown events, apprised of criminal activity. Car break-ins are up near Pratt and President streets and on Water and Redwood streets.

Deterring crime

If guides spot someone leaving valuables in a car, they explain the folly. "If you leave a $3,000 laptop, and no one's around, no purple hat, I guarantee you they're going to get that laptop," says Paul Knight, evening shift manager.

The guides patrol a 106-block area bounded by Greene Street on the west, President and The Fallsway on the East, Pratt on the south and Centre Street on the north, plus the Antique Row section of North Howard Street.

On this balmy afternoon, Gary will canvass several blocks of Baltimore and Fayette streets, east-west routes that take him from the seedy Block past soaring bank towers to the grungy west side.

Gary, who works 30 hours a week, has been a guide on and off since 1994 and knows the city. He graduated from Dunbar High School in 1975, then spent 13 years in the Navy. He is still raising two of his six children and has a second part-time job. (For a time, he worked three jobs - as a guide, Mass Transit Administration bus driver and pizza deliverer.)

Hello in many languages

Gary spots many familiar faces on the street. He waves often and says hello to most everyone. "Your bag's open, sir," he tells a man unaware of his unzipped pack.

One of his duties is to check on businesses. (Property owners support the program by paying 13.8 cents per $100 of assessed property value.)

Small touches build trust, Gary says. At one shop he greets the Korean owners in Korean; at another he greets the Russian owners in Russian. Things he picked up in the Navy, he says.

Helping the homeless

Another job is to speak to homeless people such as the man he finds under an overhang on The Block. Gary points out a "no loitering" sign and asks the man, who uses a wheelchair and says he is Reuben Roderick, if he would consider a shelter.

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