Shooting of officer highlights park crime

September 09, 2006|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,Sun reporter

The bullet that slammed into Baltimore police officer Robert G. Cirello's body armor in Patterson Park brought with it not only a rush of adrenaline but echoes of Sept. 11.

Cirello, now 27, remembers rushing to the World Trade Center towers in New York City nearly five years ago as a paramedic. When one of the smaller buildings collapsed that day, he remembers the dust cloud rushing toward him as he and his partners ducked behind an ambulance.

"It was an out-of-body experience," he recalled yesterday.

He felt that same way Thursday night. In the heart of Patterson Park in Southeast Baltimore, Cirello stepped out of his marked cruiser and into the darkness to confront two suspicious men. Suddenly, one of them bashed something on his head. Then a gun flashed at close range.

Cirello, a North Jersey native who joined Baltimore's police force a year after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, had been shot in the upper chest, but his body armor saved him from serious injury or death. He feared that the men would take his gun, but instead they ran off. He called on his radio for help and passed out.

"I wasn't freaking out," Cirello said by telephone. "It was more or less, this is what I got to do. It's what it is. It was the same exact feeling I had during 9/11. Kind of like being in a movie, watching myself.

"I really didn't hear anything. I felt stuff without pain. I felt [the bullet] hit me. ... . But I didn't feel any [pain] till I woke up."

Police and paramedics rushed him to Maryland Shock Trauma Center where he was treated for a head injury and for a quarter-size bruise on his chest. He got to the hospital about 10 p.m. By midnight, he was on his way home.

He considers himself a lucky man and talked about his body armor being his friend. This was the second time that his protective vest had come between him and a more violent result in Patterson Park.

In October 2004, Cirello and other officers were chasing down a man who was shooting into a crowd after a homecoming football game. Someone stabbed Cirello's armor with a knife or box cutter. The department awarded him a Silver Star.

Cirello remains upbeat about working as a police officer and about maintaining a constant presence in the park. In recent years, the neighborhoods around the park have become revitalized, but it remains an area dogged by crime issues.

"Dealing with the park is an absolute necessity," Cirello said. "I think they need a cop there all the time. Since I've been in the Southeast [District], we've made a dramatic improvement in what goes on there. But it's still a park."

The shooting has rattled the neighborhood, with some residents saying the incident highlights problems that the area has seen this year. Cirello was patrolling the park as part of a detail to address a spike in robberies.

Tressa Everts, who moved to Upper Fells Point six months ago from Silver Spring, said she is shocked by the level of drug dealing and other crime that she has to confront every day on her street. She criticized the drug dealers who seem to take over the streets in the afternoon and disappear as soon as police arrive.

And she expressed frustration that people in the community would rather go inside and lock their doors than confront the issue.

"The problem isn't the police," said Everts, who said her tires have been slashed and feces left inside her car, presumably by drug dealers. "It's the community. The problem is the community turns a blind eye."

Everts said she was the one who recently called the Guardian Angels - a nonprofit group that got its start in the late 1970s in the Bronx in New York City. The group's members, known for wearing red berets and confronting thugs, made its reputation helping secure New York City neighborhoods. It has since evolved into a broader community assistance force, organizers say.

But Everts said few community leaders appear interested in working with the group, and she worries that it's all about politics.

"You hear people complaining about the cops, but I'm like, what are you doing? What are you personally doing to make this better? Don't just sit here and act like it doesn't exist," she said.

City Councilman James B. Kraft has called for an emergency community meeting Monday to discuss the area's crime problem,

Robert Cherry, vice president of the city's Fraternal Order of Police union, said the criminals' boldness in attacking a uniformed officer is troubling:

"I think that any elected official or politician who thinks the city is still safe should take a look at what happened to Officer Cirello."

Police Commissioner Leonard D. Hamm said the community should be outraged by the attack on Cirello, but he said the department is focused on making arrests in the case.

He praised Cirello's actions yesterday and vowed to track down the men who attacked his officer. He described it as an "ambush."

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