Police Web feeds insatiable appetite for crime news

CRIME BEAT

April 08, 2009|By PETER HERMANN

It took 42 minutes from the first gunshot to the first blog posting.

"How many people were hit?" said one note put on line at 2:32 a.m. Saturday. "Where were they coming from? What are people doing walking around Fells Point with guns?"

Four hours later came this: "I talked to two paramedics as they were leaving the scene around 2:30. They said the man who was shot died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital."

As with the door-to-door gossip these blogs have replaced, some of the information about the gunfire at 1:50 a.m. on Lancaster Street was wrong - no one was hit or died (a man twisted his ankle, fell and hit his head in the commotion).

The comments on the Southeast Baltimore Crime Watch blog reflect the typical confusion at a chaotic crime scene - police as late as Sunday were reporting that a man had been shot in the head - but are also indicative of the insatiable quest for information about crime.

The Southeast blog is similar to list-servs and Internet forums that proliferate in hundreds of city neighborhoods and serve as lively venues for gossip and idle chatter, as well as for important news. But it is the only Web site run by one of Baltimore's nine police community relations council leaders that gives residents a chance to vent online.

And the police commander in charge of the Southeast District responds. He quickly jumped into the discussion on the Lancaster Street shooting and another one on a shooting Sunday afternoon farther north that left a woman dead. In both cases, he stressed that Fells Point is safe and that he had ordered extra patrols. "We will certainly make life unhappy for any criminal element that makes an appearance there," Roger Bergeron wrote.

But in one posting, the major described the incident on Lancaster as an "aggravated assault in which a gun was used."

He said nothing incorrect, and I understand his desire to talk about his plan of action instead of reminiscing about the shooting. But the vague description left residents thinking the incident was being underplayed. One wrote about hearing 10 rapid gunshots and said that the "next day we found eight bullets had pierced the house on the north side of the street. One couple has a baby. A bullet had gone through their door and was lodged in their hall wall."

The writer concluded: "Minimizing the seriousness of the crime because the shooter missed his intended target only delays any real action by the city to protect one of its last great neighborhoods."

Police departments in Baltimore and around the region are entering new worlds by engaging the community on Facebook, Twitter and blogs. Bergeron has answered questions about things as simple as a man upset that his license plate had been stolen and as complex as a spate of burglaries or people complaining about drug dealers next door. Often, people just want to know why they saw a police car on their block, or want cops writing tickets for drivers speeding on Aliceanna Street, or they wonder if anyone else encountered "the man who was walking on Washington Street peeking through open doors."

"People use the Web site and they become engaged," said Melissa Techentin, head of the Southeastern Police Community Relations Council. "They know if the major gets inundated with e-mails, and he does, there is another way for their concerns to be put back on the front burner."

The discussion is not only welcome, it is needed. The more information the better; sparse details breed rumors, and with the Internet they spread faster than ever.

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