Policing Downtown

Our View: Following Saturday's Shooting At The Inner Harbor, Police Must Adopt More Aggressive Tactics There, While Continuing To Reduce Serious Crime Around The City

August 18, 2009

After a lull in July, violence returned to the Inner Harbor during the weekend when a man and a boy were shot during a scuffle between what appears to be rival gang members inside one of the pavilions. The incident occurred just as a concert in the amphitheater was letting out, and though police arrived within minutes, the gunman apparently got away in the rush of people fleeing the scene. Further complicating matters, the victims themselves have made apprehending a suspect difficult by refusing to cooperate with investigators.

The harbor is the crown jewel of Baltimore's downtown renaissance, and anything that damages its reputation as a safe haven for visitors and their families threatens a major economic engine of the city and state. That's why last weekend's disturbance was an example of the kind of situation city officials simply cannot tolerate as business as usual.

After a string of violent incidents around the harbor in May and June, Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III vowed to beef up the police presence in the area with more uniformed patrolmen, undercover officers and detectives. For a while that strategy seemed to work, though it was still a long way from the kind of massive show of force the public was demanding. A spokesman for the commissioner says that's not practical and that even if it were it wouldn't necessarily deter a bad guy bent on committing mayhem. Perhaps not, but it might go a long way toward reassuring the public that everything possible was being done to keep the area safe. As we have noted before, whether people feel secure depends as much on perception as on the actual incidence of crime downtown.

Lacking the resources to put up a significantly larger show of force, the department will have to settle for the next best thing: More aggressive monitoring of potential troublemakers and stepped up efforts to get illegal guns off the streets before they wind up in areas where tourists congregate. That means zero tolerance for loud, disruptive behavior coupled with pointed verbal warnings to suspected gang members even if they're not creating a nuisance. If they know the cops are onto them when they show up - and will keep on them until they leave - chances are they'll be less likely to start trouble.

Mr. Bealefeld has also made going after bad guys with guns a priority. Short of installing metal detectors everywhere or frisking visitors to downtown, there's just no way to ensure absolutely against people bringing weapons into the area. But the more illegal guns police can confiscate in other parts of the city, the fewer will find their way to the harbor and other tourist destinations, and the less chance they'll be used to commit crimes there. Targeting illegal guns will require more aggressive detective work as well as more effective cooperation between police and prosecutors to put gun offenders behind bars and keep them there.

None of these strategies are foolproof, and they also raise the possibility of serious abuses of civil liberties. Every rambunctious teen isn't a gang member and police can't single out people as suspects just because they happen to be wearing a certain color. Mr. Bealefeld's officers have to be smart enough to recognize the signs of potential trouble without going overboard and trampling the rights of innocent citizens. That will require experienced officers with not only the right attitude and temperament to defuse situations before they get out of hand, but the ability to deal firmly with determined troublemakers if that becomes necessary.

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