Court watch group gets training

Program aims to reduce west-side nuisance crimes

July 31, 2002|By Josh Mitchell | Josh Mitchell,SUN STAFF

Thomas Atwood shudders every time he walks by the empty beer bottles and smells the pungent stench of urine near his downtown office on West Pratt Street.

Like many downtown business people, Atwood feels helpless in his fight to clean up Baltimore's streets; people who commit so-called nuisance crimes such as littering and public urination rarely suffer penalties. But Atwood, a tenant-relations coordinator at a real estate management company, has new hope.

The Downtown Partnership business group and the city state's attorney's office have organized a program in which members of the business community will attend District Court and testify in nuisance-crime proceedings. They hope their testimony on the impact of such crimes will help with prosecutions and discourage such conduct as public drunkenness and panhandling that can drag down a section of the city.

"There is a sense of helplessness there," Atwood said. "What can we do? Here's a good opportunity to see if the court system is doing its job. It's important to show we're not going to put up with this anymore."

The court watch program, announced last week, could begin in September and will initially focus on west side incidents. At their first training session yesterday, prospective participants learned courtroom tactics including addressing a judge and crafting testimony.

Atwood, whose company, Trizec, owns and manages a 24-story office building in the 200 block of W. Pratt St., was one of a dozen at the session. He said his tenants often complain of panhandling and that the building's porter spends an hour a day cleaning up trash nearby.

"For a Class A office building to be involved in nuisance crimes, it gets embarrassing," Atwood said. "If you're trying to lease a property or convince a business to set up in the area, the odors that come from that [urine] or just the sight of people who urinate or throw trash can turn off a prospective client."

Tom Yeager, vice president of the Downtown Partnership, said nuisance crimes create the image of an unsafe, dirty area, which discourages tourism.

Two colleagues recently told lawyer James Gentry that they were shoved as they walked to their cars by people demanding money.

"It's difficult to get employees to work in an atmosphere and climate where they are fearful," said Gentry, who works for Aegon USA Inc., an insurance company on North Charles Street. "I feel like our presence ... will help alert the court to the impact of these so-called `victimless' crimes."

Increased community involvement should send a message that nuisance crimes will not be tolerated, Atwood said.

"You like to see things brought to conclusion," he said. "Being able to go to court will certainly bring closure to some of these things, and at least you can see the justice system working."

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