Now off-duty officers can't nip rowdiness in the bud

CRIME BEAT

November 16, 2008|By PETER HERMANN | PETER HERMANN,peter.hermann@baltsun.com

Here's the scene across the street from the Mad River Bar & Grille on Baltimore's South Charles Street:

One young guy stomping after another young guy, arms flailing, challenging a fight, his friends trying to hold him back, the girls shouting.

"That guy just came up and threw a punch at them," one says.

"He hit that girl," says another.

Officer Matt J. Dzambo breaks up the fracas, stopping one group while letting the other walk up the street.

"Don't let it ruin your night," the officer says.

"If I find him later, I'm going to ruin his night," one man shouts.

"You don't want to get locked up for him," Dzambo replies.

The anger quickly subsides as the crowd on Charles Street swells - the smokers mixing with the young partyers lined up in front of the burly bouncers at Mother's and Mad River in a warm, drizzly rain. "They could've easily come to blows," Dzambo says. "When he saw me, his whole demeanor changed."

It's approaching midnight on Friday, and it's the next-to-last time Dzambo will be able to stand in front of Mad River in Federal Hill as part of an overtime stint that helps the bars maintain order and puts extra cops on the street at the business owners' expense. Come tomorrow, Baltimore police will no longer be able to work off-duty jobs outside bars.

Last year, off-duty officers shot and killed two armed men in a garage and outside a South Baltimore nightclub, and last week the city shelled out $50,000 to an Edgewater man who accused six off-duty officers of beating him outside Power Plant Live. In September, a Towson University student was beaten into a coma at Iguana Cantina, which hires between 12 and 15 off-duty cops to provide security outside the rowdy club.

Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III told the City Council that he doesn't want his cops throwing drunks into the street just so they can get into more trouble later. He worried that clubs "have transferred their responsibility onto the Police Department" that is liable for the officers' actions regardless of whether they're on duty or off.

The move has puzzled bar managers such as Mad River's Eric Leatherman. Starting this week, he says more of his bouncers will have to stay outside, and Iguana Cantina is considering hiring off-duty officers from Prince George's County.

"My doorman doesn't have to pull people or push or grab people or throw them outside," Leatherman says of the arrangement. "He says 'Here's a police officer,' and that usually ends it."

Dzambo typically works at Mad River from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m. Friday and Saturday nights. He gets time-and-a-half for the bar assignment, making it one of the highest-paying off-duty shifts available. He's married with two young girls, 6 and 13, and a third on the way. He works the 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. shift at the Southwestern District, making it easy for him to pop over to Mad River after work.

Now he's considering taking a security job at a Wendy's - longer hours for less overtime pay.

Two other bars in Federal Hill also have off-duty officers on this night, supplementing the regular shift of patrol cars and foot patrols that work the bar district in the trendy neighborhood. On Friday night, Dzambo stood outside, bantering with the patrons and the drunks, watching for trouble; a city cruiser idled in a parking lot up the street as two beat cops stood watching the crowds.

"The trouble is mostly pushing and shoving," Dzambo says. "We don't go into the bar unless it's something really serious. If it's just a regular fight, we try to let the bouncers handle it."

That's one of Bealefeld's biggest complaints. There's been no arrest in the beating of the student at Iguana Cantina, despite the dozen or so police officers busy breaking up fights outside the club. Did they choose not to get involved because the fight was inside the bar? Did they even know about the fight? Or were they so fixated on their narrow role as armed bouncers being paid by the bar that they forgot they're still police officers with greater responsibilities?

Just after midnight, Dzambo broke up another fight involving friends attending a bachelor party. Dzambo ran down in time to see a man thrown into the side of a parked car and another man angrily waving his bloodied white shirt in the air.

"If I'm not here, the neighbors are going to see it and they'll call 911," the officer says. "I can get it under control before a police call is even generated. It's done. It's over. I can nip it in the bud."

Starting tomorrow, that will be up to the beat cops and the bouncers.

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