Safety -- one step at a time

Safety - one step at a time

Mission: The Druid Heights Peace Patrol walks the streets of the West Baltimore neighborhood to combat crime and drugs and to help those in need.

April 22, 2002|By Johnathon E. Briggs | Johnathon E. Briggs,SUN STAFF

It used to be that when you saw ex-convicts like Samuel Jones roaming the streets of Druid Heights in West Baltimore, they were selling addicts their next highs or chasing their own.

But as members of the Druid Heights Peace Patrol, men like Jones - former prisoners and recovering drug addicts - now deal peace on the streets of a community where they once were considered part of its blight.

Armed with notepads, leaflets and a desire to make Druid Heights safer, the men volunteer to walk side by side with like-minded residents and a police escort, documenting neighborhood conditions - from vacant rowhouses to trash-strewn corners. They report to city officials, provide referral information and neighborhood news, and talk to people about suspected criminal activity.

In their presence, men loitering on corners scatter. Drug-dealing ceases. People on the street ask for help.

At times, the outreach gets personal. Jones, 48, who was addicted to heroin before he became clean in 1996, occasionally encounters addicts he knows.

"They say, `Hey, you're looking good.' And I tell them, `We got a bed waiting for you whenever you're ready,'" says Jones, who lives at one of three transitional houses operated by New Life Recovery Inc. in Druid Heights for men struggling with drug addiction.

On the surface, the one-hour, twice-weekly patrols (three times during the summer) might not seem like much, but police, merchants and residents credit the initiative with helping to reduce crime in the neighborhood near North and Pennsylvania avenues.

From Jan. 1, 2000, to Dec. 31, 2000, police tallied in Druid Heights three homicides, 20 auto thefts, 73 larcenies, and 72 violent crimes such as muggings, shootings and armed robberies. For the same period last year, Druid Heights had no homicides, eight auto thefts, 57 larcenies and 58 violent crimes, according to crime statistics from Baltimore police.

"What makes the Peace Patrol different from all the other citizen patrol groups is their attitude. If they see people loitering on the corner, they actually do street counseling with these people to get them to consider changing their lives for the better," said Central District Sgt. Charles B. Hess. "It's different than others that are just eyes and ears of the police. When the Peace Patrol is out, the criminal element knows it and they restrict their activities."

The Peace Patrol was started in 1997 by the Druid Heights Community Development Corp. with the aim of decreasing crime and drug trafficking, providing assistance to those in need, and making the neighborhood safer, especially for children and the elderly. And its patrols from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. are complemented by anonymous "window watchers" who help keep tabs on potential problems.

The program receives support from the Enterprise Foundation and Community Law Center. Although a Central District police officer escorts the group, a brochure sets a few things straight about the program: "We are not the police. We are not informers for the police. We are not your enemy."

"When we're out, everyone on the streets gives us respect," says Ionie Gordon, owner of Johnson's Grocery whose store in the 1700 block of McCulloh St. boasts "the best ice cream in town," and who joined the Peace Patrol in 1999. "They either move, get quiet or ask questions."

The group started with mostly women but, in recent years, it has been dominated by men from New Life Recovery and ex-convicts from the Maryland Re-Entry Partnership Initiative, a program that helps former prisoners integrate into communities that also has a transition home in Druid Heights. Men from both programs sought a way to give something back to the neighborhood.

What binds the men is shared experience: Lured into the underworld of drugs, they were ensnared in a cycle of prison and addiction that was broken, they say, only after finding themselves physically, spiritually and emotionally "bankrupt."

For Jones, who sold heroin until he became "my own best customer," the bottom was reached in 1996 when a conviction on a drug distribution charge got him a prison sentence. That conviction landed the East Baltimore native in Drug Court, putting him on the path to recovery.

"You can't tell me that people can't make a change," Jones said.

With the Peace Patrol, each walk for Jones and the others begins the same: Clad in bright red smocks, about 20 gather, hand-in-hand, in a circle near McCulloh and Robert streets and pray.

"Lord, we ask that you protect us as we walk the streets," a member often says, head bowed. "Amen," the others affirm.

As they walk, the neighborhood shifts from corners anchored by abandoned rowhouses whose boards have become memorials to the fallen - "R.I.P. James" reads one - to pockets of well-kept townhouses. The patrol canvasses each block with fliers, stuffing them under doors, pushing them through porch railings, and handing them to men and women stepping out of cars or sitting at bus stops.

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