On Game Days, Cops In The Spirit

CRIME BEAT

September 13, 2009|By PETER HERMANN

The Baltimore ordinance seems clear.

Drinking an alcoholic beverage "in open container" on a "street, etc., or in vehicle" is illegal, and violators are subject to fines of up to $500. A judge can throw you in jail for up to a month.

That rarely happens, of course.

But if you ask people who live near M&T Bank Stadium, it never happens on a day the Ravens play at home. They complain that many laws, particularly the one governing where revelers can drink beer and throw their empty cans, seems to get lost in the revelry of the spirited tailgate.

"The city enforces parking laws against the residents but they don't enforce the open-container law on game day," complained Mike Kennedy, a 44-year-old homeowner on West Cross Street, a few blocks from the stadium. "It seems to me there is a policy from on high in the Police Department to look the other way."

Is Kennedy a spoilsport for the more than 70,000 fans who today will start a new season of descending on South Baltimore on Sundays in the fall or a responsible taxpayer concerned about the upkeep of his neighborhood?

Police officers have wide discretion over how, when and where they enforce many laws. You can get a ticket, a written warning or a verbal reprimand for driving too fast. You can get arrested for loitering or just be told to move.

Tailgating and drinking is allowed on Maryland Stadium Authority lots - sanctioned by the dozens of official purple port-a-potties - but is illegal on the public streets in between.

It is largely an industrial area, and most of the Stadium Authority's parking lots are within a rectangular boundary devoid of private homes. Strictly enforcing the open-container law here seems silly and would be as futile as calling in a noise complaint on Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras.

The question is, how far can you venture from the stadium with a beer before being stopped? From a private lot near Kennedy's Pigtown home? From a bar in Federal Hill? Or from Washington Boulevard, where the whole block tends to be a tailgate area?

No one wants to ruin the Ravens celebration, and certainly police don't want to admit they're suspending the law on a whim. It is simply an understanding, an unwritten and unspoken agreement between beer-toting fans and city cops on a day when everyone wants to have a good time and pray that the Ravens put Baltimore on the map for something other than crime.

For the good of the city psyche, certain laws can be overlooked.

"Everybody knows you can drink on game days on the street," said former Baltimore Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris. "There's no hard-and-fast rule; people just have to use common sense."

The former top cop said he never told his troops not to enforce the law. On game day, "if you step outside a bar or your home with a beer, I don't see it as a big deal," he said. He said he simply told his officers "to use their heads."

The chief of security for the Maryland Stadium Authority and the chief spokesman for the Baltimore Police Department engaged in a verbal game of Twister while trying to find the right words to describe how cops practice tolerance without allowing people to flout the law.

"We monitor," Police Department spokesman Anthony Guglielmi told me. "We don't want to intimidate people and put in place martial law and discourage people from coming to Baltimore. But the law's the law."

"The football experience has become very festive in Baltimore," said the Stadium Authority's Jim Slusser. "It's not so much changing the rules as it is providing an experience for the community."

The Stadium Authority hires 80 off-duty city police to keep order inside the stadium during a typical game. The officers outside are drawn from patrol and other departments, and there are not enough to enforce every minor infraction.

"It comes down to resources," Guglielmi said.

Stadium Authority officials meet regularly with community groups to talk about trash, drinking and parking complaints. Folks from Sharp-Leadenhall run a concession stand next to the bridge over Hamburg Street and make a day of their community being overrun. The Baltimore firefighters union Local 734 puts on a popular bull roast at its office, the old Engine Co. 37 station on Ridgely Street.

Union president Bob Sledgeski said he warns people who line up around the block for his pit beef and cans of cold beer that drinking is allowed only inside the bricked-in courtyard or inside the hall.

"By and large, police make us live up to the letter of the law," he told me.

He suggested that the city designate the expanse between Interstate 395 (where Lot H is located under the highway) west to perhaps Paca Street, before it reaches residential homes as a drinking zone.

"I don't think it would hurt for people to walk down the street with a beer," Sledgeski said. "But we wouldn't want to do anything to infringe on our neighbors."

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