Fighting crime, step by step

Residents combat lawlessness, blight by patrolling the streets with police

April 04, 2006|By GUS G. SENTEMENTES | GUS G. SENTEMENTES,SUN REPORTER

They gathered in a parking lot in Cherry Hill, held hands in the brisk early evening, and said a brief prayer for their neighborhood. Then they began walking.

Some were elderly, some were young. Some walked unaided, while two puttered along on electric scooters. Their common purpose: reclaiming a neighborhood, where many of them grew up and raised families, from crime and disorder.

Around South Baltimore, groups of residents have persevered over the past two years in walking the streets of their neighborhoods, from Federal Hill to Otterbein, from Brooklyn to Sharp-Leadenhall, in a modest partnership with the Baltimore Police Department. The department provides an officer or two to walk with them -- usually a top commander in the district -- and the neighborhoods supply the motivated residents who want to show criminals who really owns the streets.

"Some of these people are in their 80s and they want their streets back," said Jack Baker, president of the Southern District Community Relations Council. "And they're willing to work for it."

Organizers call it "Citizens on Patrol," but it's not to be mistaken for similar programs in other parts of the country where citizens sometimes don uniforms and patrol their neighborhoods in marked vehicles. The Southern District's program is more about walking the streets with a top police commander on a regular basis and giving residents and police a chance to identify neighborhood nuisances together.

Organizers make lists of problems -- from broken streetlights to vacant, unsecured houses -- and report them to the city's 311 system, which they say they've had a good experience with so far.

And there have been times, in different neighborhoods, where the walkers have stumbled across crimes in progress. The walks have led to 11 arrests, organizers said.

"The whole goal is to deter crimes of opportunity, and one of the best ways to do that is to record and fix items that are attractive to criminals," said Shannon Sullivan, a Riverside resident and organizer of the walks.

The rationale for the walks is based on the "broken windows" theory of fighting crime that many cities, including Baltimore, have implemented over the past decade. Put simply, the theory suggests that criminals are attracted to areas where there is disorder and disrepair, so taking steps to fix broken windows, dilapidated houses and inoperable street lights can help reduce crime.

The program in the Southern District is the only one where citizens and police do it on foot; some other districts have programs where residents do the patrolling in vehicles.

Sullivan said the district's Citizens on Patrol program drew the attention of leaders of Middlesbrough, a small industrial city in England. Officials from that city came to Baltimore last year to learn about community policing efforts. They met Sullivan and heard about the walks. Then the English officials invited the COP organizers to England last summer to help them start a similar program in Middlesbrough.

"We talked a lot about crime in Baltimore versus crime in England," said Sullivan. "To them, the crime in Baltimore seemed outrageous. They don't have concerns about guns that we do; they don't have the number of homicides."

The Southern District has seen a 44 percent decline in total crime since 1999, according to the department's statistics. But crime in some neighborhoods in the district has spiked upward in the first three months of this year compared with the same period in 2005, the figures show.

In the Brooklyn neighborhood, robberies had nearly tripled. In Cherry Hill, robberies nearly doubled. And residents in Federal Hill, Riverside and Locust Point have had to deal with more burglaries this year than last year, according to statistics compiled by the Southern District.

On a recent walk in Cherry Hill, about 25 residents gathered in the parking lot of a private apartment complex on Cherry Hill Road. With Deputy Maj. Michael McDonald and another police officer accompanying them, the group walked through the Cherry Hill Homes public housing complex.

"We've significantly reduced crime in the neighborhood through activities like these," said Cathy McClain, executive director of Cherry Hill 2000, an umbrella organization representing community associations and businesses in the south-side neighborhood. McClain helped lead the walk in Cherry Hill.

"Most people just want a safe place where their kids can play outside," she said.

If anything, the walks reveal how greatly the neighborhoods in South Baltimore differ, from demographics to housing.

In an earlier walk in the Riverside neighborhood, more than 20 residents gathered for a walk that took them through streets where the city's real estate boom was hard to miss. On nearly every street, there were rowhouses in various stages of renovation.

But there were also vacant, unsecured homes, broken streetlights and corner bars whose patrons sometimes got too rowdy.

During that walk, the deputy major had to break up an argument between two bar patrons that spilled out onto Heath Street. He also chased two trespassers down an alley before they managed to get away.

McDonald, who took over the No. 2 spot in the district in early February after a posting in the department's special operations unit, said he's been impressed with how well-organized the walks have been.

"People come from different neighborhoods to walk in other neighborhoods," McDonald said. "They support each other's communities. That surprised me."

gus.sentementes@baltsun.com

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