Reality dictates hiring extra cops

BALTIMORE CRIME BEAT

December 05, 2008|By Peter Herman | Peter Herman,Peter.Herman@baltsun.com

Who says you can't have a cop on every corner?

If you have the money, you can buy your own.

That's what the Midtown Community Benefits District is doing. Starting next week, the group, which taxes property owners over and above what the city takes, is spending $25,000 to add police in Mount Vernon, Charles North, Madison Park and Bolton Hill.

The cops get overtime. The group's executive director, Peter Merles, says the city is ponying up a patrol car and the benefits district bought a Segway and a nonprofit donated another.

FOR THE RECORD - Because of inaccurate information supplied by the Midtown Community Benefits District, a crime column published yesterday incorrectly reported details about officers hired on overtime to provide extra patrols. Baltimore police say the benefits district is paying $28,000 to hire six police officers to work six-hour shifts for 20 days. The Baltimore Sun regrets the errors.

OK, so there won't be a cop on every corner, but here is what $25,000 can buy in the way of protection: eight police officers in uniform working six hours a night, five nights a week for a month in neighborhoods that include some of the city's most important places: the Walters Art Museum, Maryland Institute College of Art, Station North, the University of Baltimore and Penn Station, not to mention the bars, restaurants and stores.

Everybody but the crooks wants more cops and less crime. But the city has limited forces to cope with a spike in killings coming at the same time as a major budget crunch.

A few months ago, city leaders boasted of reaching a 30-year low in homicides. Now they're hoping for a 20-year low. And two dozen killings in the past 19 days put that figure in peril. If this murderous pace continues, the city might manage just the fewest killings since 2001. Meanwhile, car break-ins and burglaries are up and a serial rapist remains on the loose in and around Mount Vernon.

The Midtown Community Benefits District just released the results of a homeowner survey that found crime encroaching from other neighborhoods. Youths, prostitution and vagrancy top the list of concerns. The results are hardly surprising.

What stuck out to Michael R. Molla, chairman of the benefit district's public safety committee, is that most residents reported feeling safe during the day (65 percent in Mount Vernon-Belvedere and 75 percent in Charles North) but few felt safe at night (19 percent in Mount Vernon-Belvedere and 17 percent in Charles North).

"There is a clear indication that there is something different in the evening that creates a lesser feeling of safety," Molla said. "That tells us we need to look at issues of lighting, safety patrols during the evening versus the day and so forth."

The district's executive director, Merles, said residents opted not to hire a full-time safety patrol, as Charles Village does, thinking officers working overtime would get them "more bang for the buck."

Every community should be policed in proportion to its needs. Defining that, of course, is subjective. Areas with high crime need more cops. Neighborhoods with low crime need fewer. At least that's the conventional wisdom. Crime may be down because there are more cops, and when you move them, crime goes up. The last thing you want to do is destabilize an already stable community, but how do you decide when it is safe to redeploy?

There are political considerations as well. The mayor can't flood the Inner Harbor, the downtown and Mount Vernon with police at the expense of poorer, crime-ridden neighborhoods.

At the same time, officials have to keep the Inner Harbor, the downtown and Mount Vernon safe to preserve tourism, shopping and cultural areas that make the city vibrant and attractive to visitors and residents.

Communities in Baltimore and all over Maryland willingly pay more money for services above and beyond what their cities, towns and counties provide.

If you can pay to have your trash collected more frequently, why can't you also pay to have more cops?

"I'm sure there are some members, probably many members, who wish they didn't have to pay an extra surtax to get extra services," Merles told me. "We also recognize the financial reality that our city faces."

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