Mobile units used in questioning

While police collect tips from arrestees, few retailers annoyed

October 20, 2006|By Annie Linskey and Gus G. Sentementes | Annie Linskey and Gus G. Sentementes,SUN REPORTERS

City police officers blocked off part of the Old Town Mall and set up a temporary center for interviewing suspects yesterday, an initiative that irked some business owners at the struggling retail center in East Baltimore.

Using police tape, officers cordoned off the southwestern end of a pedestrian promenade and parked three mobile trailers in front of shuttered stores. They led suspects - who had just been arrested - into the vans where they conducted interviews. Police said the purpose was to change the routine for processing suspected criminals and jar usually silent suspects into giving up tips.

"We're trying to get as much intelligence as we possibly can, so we try to create an environment that is different than what normally occurs," said Lt. Col. John P. Skinner, area commander for the eastern half of the city. Skinner called the effort a "centralized debriefing initiative."

But some merchants at the outdoor mall accused police of driving away business while others welcomed what they called a "show of force."

Officers started processing suspects at the temporary station about 2 p.m. Throughout the afternoon, wagons filled with people arrested in the Northern, Northeastern, Eastern and Southeastern districts pulled into a parking lot near the mall at Ensor and Monument streets.

Officers brought out the suspects in handcuffs and took personal information from them. Then detectives - some who specialize in violent crimes and gang intelligence - also interviewed the suspects. Some were cooperative and got a citation; those who wouldn't give police tips went on to be processed at the Central Booking and Intake Center.

Arrestees are usually questioned at district station houses before they are processed.

Skinner said the centralized process has been done in the past - at school and grocery store parking lots in the late evenings.

Yesterday, a detective walked up to Lt. John J. Paradise and said she had received a tip on a homicide. Later, a uniformed officer told Paradise he just got a tip on a burglary.

The mall was used Oct. 12 for the same purpose, and police questioned about 120 people. Last week, Skinner said investigators identified witnesses to several violent crimes, including a homicide, and developed leads on robberies, nonfatal shootings and illegal drug trafficking.

Old Town Mall, which traces its roots to a farmers' market in the 1890s, got a major facelift in the 1970s, thanks to federal and city dollars. Remade into a pedestrian mall, it was once a model for urban renewal but still struggles to attract business.

Some merchants said the police activity did not help.

"I think it is terrible," said Arkadiy Krinitskiy, the owner of Old Town Loan and Jewelry Company, a pawn shop close to the area blocked off by police. "This mall already has a bad reputation. People are scared to come to this part of the mall because they think something happened."

Antonio Foster, president of the mall's business association and operator of a barbershop and a beauty salon, said he thought the extra police in the area were part of a crime-fighting initiative to combat crime and drug dealing. "We didn't know they were actually interrogating suspects there," Foster said.

Skinner said he thought that most of the interaction with merchants was positive. "Most of the businesses really close in the late afternoon. I don't believe we're affecting commerce."

Garrick Everson, the owner of Ayrdale Variety II, a men's clothing store, was pleased to see so many officers. "A show of force is necessary," he said.

But Everson pointed out that the police put together a more aesthetically pleasing operation last week. "They had it set up like a little police station. ... They should remove the crime tape, so it don't look like a crime scene."

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