Gunfire Sparks Call For Action

Police On Alert For Gang Activity Downtown After Inner Harbor Violence

August 17, 2009|By Annie Linskey | Annie Linskey,annie.linskey@baltsun.com

Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III ordered a renewed crackdown Sunday on suspected gang activity in the downtown area in response to a weekend shooting at Baltimore's Inner Harbor attributed to rival gang members.

The Saturday night incident, which took place despite a summer-long increase in police presence downtown, left two young men wounded. Bealefeld said he has directed officers to more aggressively stop and question young people who wear gang colors and misbehave by the waterfront.

Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon, sounding frustrated in her first comments on the incident, stressed that such violence "isn't happening in Woodlawn and it isn't happening in Columbia." She called for police officers to watch the area more closely.

In late spring, random assaults linked to youths roving downtown, including the Inner Harbor, prompted police to add three dozen officers to the area. Some of the violence was blamed on suspected gang activity.

The show of police force seemed to be working, with no major crimes in July and key business leaders expressing satisfaction with the city's response.

But on Saturday around 10 p.m. - shortly after an Orioles game let out - at least one gunshot was fired inside the Light Street Pavilion of Harborplace near Phillips Seafood restaurant and Lee's Ice Cream. A 20-year-old man was struck in the calf and a 16-year-old boy was hit in the right forearm, police said. Both victims are suspected members of a Bloods faction, Bealefeld said. Neither had life-threatening injuries, according to police.

Detectives recovered a shell casing and were reviewing video surveillance footage and interviewing witnesses Sunday. They had not made any arrests and were seeking tips from anyone who might have information about those involved in the shooting.

The crime occurred on private property - the pavilion is owned by General Growth Properties Inc. which has its own security force - but Bealefeld said the city police department is accountable.

"We don't need gang members coming downtown to be disruptive and disorderly and lawless," Bealefeld said. "That is our responsibility. We should be talking to those folks." The commissioner spent Sunday meeting with his command staff and said he made his expectations "abundantly clear."

The mayor, in an interview, said she plans to make unannounced visits to the Inner Harbor area to observe the atmosphere that tourists and others are encountering. More officers aren't needed, she said, just the "right police" who will pay close attention to troublemakers.

Dixon acknowledged that the sort of stepped-up enforcement she envisions could draw criticism.

"People might not like it," Dixon said. "Some radicals are going to speak out about it. Our officers are going to have to be more aggressive."

On Sunday morning, a woman, who said that she saw the incident, said the violence unfolded quickly. The woman, who asked that her name not be used because she was an eyewitness, said she only heard one gunshot before she ducked for cover.

Bealefeld said, members of two gangs, a Bloods faction and a Crips faction, passed each other in a hallway and exchanged words.

Then, "one coward sucker-punched a kid in the other group," he said.

As a scuffle broke out, someone told police that a person in the pavilion had a gun, said Agent Donny Moses, a police spokesman.

Before officers could arrive, a member of the Crips had fired a semi-automatic handgun, according to police.

One victim lay bleeding on the ground. Another left and was found by police at a nearby amphitheater. Neither shooting victim was willing to give police information about the incident, Bealefeld said, noting that it took hours before the second victim admitted that he had been shot at the Inner Harbor.

Law enforcement officials have struggled for decades over how best to monitor and combat gang activity in Baltimore and elsewhere in Maryland. State lawmakers have passed measures aimed at gang leaders in recent years, but prosecutors say the new laws are cumbersome and should be strengthened.

Margaret Burns, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore State's Attorney's Office, said it is critical that Maryland define "gang member" in state law and devise enhanced penalties for gang members who are convicted of shootings and other violence. She said prosecutors also want to see a new statute that would allow them to go after anyone who furthers a gang enterprise, such as through drug dealing.

"It's not a crime to be a gang member," Burns said. "That's the challenge we face."

She said police and prosecutors across the state will lobby for new gang legislation next year, but they'll likely face stiff resistance from the House Judiciary Committee, which has questioned the constitutional ramifications of gang-specific legislation.

"I would hope you don't embark on a crusade to put people in jail because of the color that they wear," Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons, a Montgomery County Democrat, told prosecutors during the 2007 session.

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