Proposed memorial divides a community

Park: Debate continues over the site for a tribute to two slain officers.

April 08, 2003|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

A mound of flowers on a cherished triangle of public land off Harford Road has provoked a bitter dispute among leaders of the city, a police district, a neighborhood and a Baptist church over where to place a police memorial.

At first, it seemed simple enough. The mourning families of two Northeast Baltimore police officers who were killed in an automobile accident while on duty in 2000 started searching for a way to honor their memories.

They decided to place a simple plaque at the intersection where the two were struck by a speeding drunken driver, and then construct a more visible memorial a few miles away at Heinz Park, city-owned land bracketed by Harford Road and Argonne Drive now occupied by a patch of pansies.

Mayor Martin O'Malley whole-heartedly backed the families' wishes.

"They went through the tragedy of losing loved ones," O'Malley said. "The least we should do is move a bed of flowers."

But more than two years after the October day the policemen died, no ground has been broken because of an outcry from residents of the neighborhood and members of the Ray of Hope Baptist Church adjacent to Heinz Park. What few outside the Arcadia community knew was how deeply attached the neighborhood is to that small cut of public parkland, which features not only a bed of pansies and other flowers year-round, but also another memorial, a 211-year-old white obelisk dedicated to Christopher Columbus.

Community concern

"The community has in essence been caretaking that part of the park for 10 years," said Charles Dicken, president of the Arcadia Improvement Association. "That's a prime piece of real estate."

Neighbors worried that the proposed gray brick police memorial would clash with the Columbus monument and also be out of scale in the small park.

"I would argue the process is not completed at this point," Dicken said. "We need to think about design and have a very legitimate [community] review of the design."

He said a neighborhood committee had been formed to "think through" memorial design.

Though not residents of Arcadia, Laurie Platt, the widow of Sgt. John D. Platt, and Dawn McCarthy, sister of Officer Kevin J. McCarthy, do live in the Police Department's Northeast District, which encompasses the neighborhood. They thought it made sense to locate their tribute at the park because it is a block from the Northeast District building where the two men reported for roll call.

`It's the right thing'

"That's where we set our goals, our hearts," said McCarthy, an operations manager for a stockbroker. "My brother gave his life to serve the community and that's all he ever wanted, to be a police officer. We hoped to have respect for what happened to our families."

Platt, an elementary school teacher, said, "Just plain and simple, it's the right thing to do."

Spurred by their loss, the women widened their mission to include the three other Northeast District police officers who had died on the job: Sgt. Jack L. Cooper, Lt. Owen E. Sweeney Jr. and Agent Michael Cowdery Jr. They held spaghetti dinners, raffles and car washes to raise money.

The memorial would give police officers and neighbors a reminder of the sacrifice police work requires, they thought.

When it became clear the community was concerned that the proposed charcoal-colored brick might be "incongruous" with the Columbus obelisk, it compounded the women's sense of loss.

As O'Malley put it, "Accommodating another memorial was not something the neighbors were looking forward to. Well, the Platts and the McCarthys were not looking forward to being without their husbands and fathers."

Mayor lends support

O'Malley's sympathy ran deep as a Northeast Baltimore resident who had known both veterans of the force.

The mayor fielded comments at public forums, one at a recent City Hall open house. Zatella Giles, a member of the Ray of Hope Baptist Church, told O'Malley the triangular city park - a favorite spot for community events and church festivals - is not the best site to grieve, surrounded by noise and traffic.

"There's no way you're going to meditate in that space," Giles said in an interview, adding that she spoke for herself and not for the church. "We have nothing against the memorial. We just don't think that's the proper place."

"They're building a memorial downtown for all the [fallen] city police officers on Fayette Street," Giles said. That place of remembrance - which will show more than 100 names on walls - is under construction next to the Shot Tower and is scheduled to open this year.

Platt and McCarthy said they were willing to discuss ways the flower bed could be saved but felt rebuffed. Both sides noted that none of the other eight police districts in Baltimore has a public shrine for fallen officers.

Sgt. Drew Hall at the Northeast District said the long-running argument has been disheartening. Officers on the night shift, he said, remember their late colleagues vividly. A police memorial in a civilian park would help them heal and share grief, he said.

"You'd think people would embrace this, but sometimes neighborhoods miss the point," Hall said. "It's very little to ask to use a small space in a public park to honor their lives and their deaths."

Israel C. Patoka, head of the mayor's office of neighborhoods, is assigned to mediate the dispute. Patoka said it was clear Arcadia has been an excellent steward of Heinz Park, but equally clear that the Platt and McCarthy families - and therefore the mayor - are unwaveringly set on that site.

Patoka said a Baltimore architectural firm, Marks, Thomas & Associates, has agreed to design the memorial at no cost. It would likely feature a police badge as the motif - Platt and McCarthy's idea.

"We'll have a softer monument integrated with the landscape," Patoka said. "Everyone has moved off Point A and moved to Point B. It'll be beautiful at the end of the day."

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