Right Message, Wrong Audience

CRIME BEAT

July 26, 2009|By PETER HERMANN

The cops in Baltimore's Southwestern Police District knocked on 28 doors, searching for 28 juveniles they had locked up in the past month. They were serving not warrants to put them back in jail but invitations to a meeting, to teach, to guide, to inform, to keep them from being locked up a second time.

Deputy Maj. Charles V. Carter Sr. led off the meeting, held Friday night at the Kedesh House of Prayer Christian Church on West Lombard Street, with a prayer and a reading of grim statistics of juvenile crime - 260 kids under 18 arrested this year in his district alone, 16 of them deemed violent, 27 of them repeat offenders.

Of the 28 teens representing the most recent arrests, exactly zero showed up to hear Carter's message.

That's not to say people didn't come. The hall was packed. There were kids in blue shirts from the Police Explorers club, kids in tan shirts from the Boy Scouts, kids from the church and kids of the evening's speakers.

When one looked around the room at the well-behaved, the smartly dressed, the polite teenagers, it was quickly obvious that these were not the kids who needed saving. Nor were their parents the ones who needed training.

Tanon Brunson, the church's youth minister, spoke toward the end and heaped praise on the meeting, its organizers, the speakers and the kids who seem to be doing everything right. But he also saw a problem. He recognized nearly every child in the room.

"You already belong to something," he told the group.

It's the kids who don't belong to anything - or at least anything other than a street gang - who needed to be in the room.

And those kids, even with a personal invitation from a cop knocking at their door, don't come to meetings like this.

"We can't do this indoors," Brunson told me later. "We have to do it outside."

He told the group of already dedicated youngsters to recruit one friend to join whatever it is they have joined, and then, he said, "we get one more off the corner."

Carter acknowledged the frustrations but refused to give up. He said most of the 28 kids he invited aren't really kids at all, but around 17 years old, and he wants to go after the 14-and-under group for the next meeting. Those kids are more likely to attend and listen to his cops and their parents.

"If you quit, you never win," Carter said.

Just a few streets away from this meeting is where a 5-year-old girl caught a stray bullet in the head - a bullet fired, police say, by another teen who had escaped home monitoring ordered by state juvenile authorities to keep him in line and out of trouble. That sparked outrage over how the youth broke free and why he had been allowed out of detention in the first place.

Across the city, cops locked up young boys, ages 7, 8 and 11, for stealing a scooter and bicycle parts. That, too, sparked outrage, but not over overzealous cops slapping handcuffs on little kids, but rather on how to deal with young offenders and the lack of proper supervision by parents.

A community leader in Southwest Baltimore, Stephen Herlth, summed it up for me at the meeting: "Parenting has become an endangered species."

He would get no argument on this day in this church.

Pete O'Neal told how his mother kept him on the front steps and in line at their East Baltimore rowhouse. If he did something wrong, Ms. Sally from up the street would be out with a warning: "Aren't you Mrs. O'Neal's son? Time for you to get home."

O'Neal told the kids, "Nowadays, you can't talk to someone else's child. You can't put a hand on them. Ms. Sally wasn't afraid to put a hand on you."

O'Neal, who speaks at these meetings often, told the kids, "In the capacity of my job, I never want to see you again." His job is a cameraman for Channel 2 News, a job he's held for more than a quarter-century, a job that requires him to point a camera at bodies lying in the streets.

He estimates he's filmed more than 3,000 slaying scenes, and despite never stepping foot in front of the lens, he is one of the most well-known media personalities in Baltimore, perhaps the only one with street cred from the cops and the thugs. "Pete on the Street" is what they call him.

"I cover homicides," O'Neal bluntly explained. "I cover people killing each other. I cover murder. I guarantee you, I've been to your neighborhood. ... I have yet to meet a drug dealer who after five years says, 'I made it.' They're either dead or in jail with nothing. ... So I don't want to see you, because if I do, I'm filming you with a bullet in you."

O'Neal reminded the kids that he came from the same mean streets that they did, "and I've been to Rome and met the pope. ... I've been to the White House."

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