Citizens on Patrol hopes to start a movement in East Baltimore

Taking back a community, step by step

October 27, 2007|By Sumathi Reddy | Sumathi Reddy,Sun reporter

As dusk settles, the glittering lights of downtown emerge, just a few miles away -- but a world removed -- from one of the roughest areas in one of the deadliest cities in the country.

A group gathers on the corner of North Patterson Park Avenue and East Hoffman Street in East Baltimore, within blocks of the scenes of at least eight homicides this year.

Police officers and representatives from the mayor's office, a mother from South Baltimore and a couple hand-in-hand, two members of the Guardian Angels in their signature red jackets and berets. Folks from Brooklyn and Curtis Bay, Morrell Park and Key Highway.

They patrol their neighborhoods regularly, and now they're here for what might seem like a simple thing, a Citizens on Patrol walk, but for a neighborhood that has never seen one, it's a significant step. Symbolic, if nothing else.

"Most of these people here are from other parts of the city," says Lt. Col. Odis L. Sistrunk Jr., director of community relations for the Police Department, as the group waits for the local representatives. "It's really not at the point where this is a community event. When people in the neighborhood here see the walk ... eventually you'll have more people getting involved."

Minutes later, Charlene Bourne arrives with about a half-dozen fellow Eastern District Police Community Relations Council members bearing T-shirts advertising the walk.

Bourne, 50, is president of the Eastern District council. She lives slightly north of here. Most of the other East Baltimore residents also don't live in this area, which is well-known for drug and gang activity.

Residents gave her a list of hot spots and other areas to walk through.

"Sometime people are a little leery of retaliation," she says.

Jack Baker, president of the Southern District Police Community Relations Council and a proponent of these walks, calls everyone together. Members of the group grasp hands and stand in a circle.

Holding a flashlight, Baker stands in the middle.

"We're more effective if we're seen as a group," he tells them. "We're going to make an impact."

Across the city, Citizens on Patrol groups consisting of residents armed with flashlights and accompanied by police are seen as a potential deterrent to crime and a visible symbol of community resistance to drug dealers and other criminal elements.

In Northeast and Northwest Baltimore, longtime, well-organized citizen groups patrol, often by vehicle. And in South Baltimore, Baker and a tight-knit group walk in neighborhoods from Otterbein to Cherry Hill.

But the culture of COP walks in East and West Baltimore has never been sustained.

Notorious for high homicide numbers and rampant drug activity, East Baltimore is among the most dangerous parts of the city.

It leads the city's other police districts with 41 homicides as of Oct. 8, an increase of 11 percent from the corresponding time last year, and 98 nonfatal shootings, an increase of 17 percent.

"We've had some issues here this year," says Maj. David Cheuvront, who oversees the Eastern District. "Gang activity, drug dealing, homicides."

Baker, 64, of Otterbein says he's working to help jump-start programs in East and West Baltimore.

Last month, Baker and others joined Western District Police Community Relations Council members in their first COP walk. Two have followed.

"These are districtwide COP walks because people are so afraid in those two districts," Baker says. "Those two districts haven't had a COP walk because people wouldn't come out after dark. This is a way to stop that and to help our cops."

Inez Robb, president of the Western District Police Community Relations Council, says the walks were helpful. Frederick H. Bealefeld III, now the city's police commissioner, attended the first walk.

"He gave us pointers on what to look for, things to notice," says Robb, 59, who lives in Sandtown-Winchester. "We shut down one illegal business, a carwash that didn't have a license."

Partnering with and follow-up by police are critical to having a successful COP organization, says Sheldon Greenberg, director of the Johns Hopkins University's Division of Public Safety Leadership.

"Some groups are extremely effective, and then you have some that are show and tell, that exist only in name," he says.

The groups are less effective in combating crimes such as homicide and serious assault than with preventing things such as auto thefts, nuisance crimes, vandalism and loitering, Greenberg says.

"COP is an incredible tool in improving neighborhoods," he says. "They are an invaluable extension of the Police Department but not a replacement for effective policing. They can make life so miserable for the bad guys that they get tired and move on."

That seems to be the case on this recent warm evening. East Hoffman Street, usually a hotbed of drug activity, is eerily quiet.

Children and senior citizens sitting on steps and porches stare perplexed at the parade of 30-plus strange faces walking by.

"Whatcha' all doing?" screams a man.

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