One block at a time

September 19, 2002

TWO KINDS of welcome greeted the opening this week of a small community relations post for Baltimore City police in a house on Madison Avenue.

One was a block party celebrating neighbors' hope that increased police presence will drive away the drug dealers who linger on steps and corners day and night.

Also, someone slashed the tires on a car owned by a founder of the "substation," which is a fancy name for a city carriage house converted by sweat equity and donations of furniture and fixtures into a meeting place and refreshment stop for officers.

Of the tires, 1708 Madison's founder, Bryan Taylor, says: "It just makes me madder" -- and more determined to force the issue of how to restore the benefits of community policing to his small corner of the city. He and co-founder Vaughn Vigil have no illusions: It's only one house, on one block, but the alternative of waiting for governmental agencies to notice their street and act seemed just too slow.

"There had to be something I could do," Mr. Taylor said. Would they come if he built it? They did.

The Central District has one fulltime substation where officers work; it has in the past had some of these smaller outposts, typically work space donated by neighborhood associations, retail businesses, clinics or housing developments. This newest site is privately owned, basically in the backyard of a few who took a risk.

From the Police Department's perspective, the effort is more about community relations than about making busts: Officers need to be on the streets, not in the outpost. But the neighborhood activists believe they've provided access, and access equals police presence, which is a deterrent -- necessary if there is later to be revitalization. For now, that's a long way off in this block of Madison.

But the outpost is also a morale booster for officers who have a hard time gaining a foothold in drug zones where many neighbors are too intimidated, if not too involved themselves with those who use and sell the drugs, to become a part of the solution. Officers who plan to use the post have indicated that to be welcomed means much.

Community policing, the idea of building relationships among beat officers and residents, has perhaps in too many areas taken a back seat to "move along, loiterer" methods of reducing crime and nuisance. But police cannot be expected to rid neighborhoods of drug activity without the participation of concerned citizens, so this bold experiment touches many chords in a battle-weary city.

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