Police urge partyers to celebrate holiday without firing guns


December 31, 2009|By Peter Hermann | peter.hermann@baltsun.com

In some Baltimore neighborhoods, New Year's Eve revelers shoot bullets instead of fireworks.

And as in years past, city police are mounting an offensive to, if not put a stop to the celebratory gunfire, at least scare some people into putting away their guns and joining tens of thousands for the sanctioned display of pyrotechnics over the Inner Harbor.

As many as 1,000 extra officers could be out looking for guns tonight. "We flood the streets with cops to at least give off the appearance that we're everywhere," said Agent Donny Moses, a department spokesman. "Hopefully, people will think twice about doing it because there are so many of us out there."

But, Moses said, "It's still a Baltimore tradition, one that we have to deal with."

Retired Baltimore Police Capt. Jerry "Buz" Busnuk, who now runs a security consulting business and writes a crime blog, remembers his first New Year's Eve as a rookie cop in the Western District in the early 1970s. He said his sergeant told the officers, "If it's getting close to midnight, make yourselves very scarce."

Busnuk said they were told to hide in a school or in a group and "to stay out of people's way." He said he still heeded that advice in the 1980s when he was a sergeant in the Southwestern. Ten minutes before the dawn of a new year, he took cover at Edmondson High School.

"I could see the fireworks downtown, but I thought I was in the middle of Beirut," the retired captain said. "Guns were going off around me like crazy."

That was before, Busnuk said, the "Let's go out and get 'em crew."

In 1999, Baltimore's new mayor, Martin O'Malley, publicly complained that in years past, city police had hidden beneath highway overpasses and taken cover to avoid being showered with bullets. He ordered police to confront the gunmen, and on Jan. 1, 2000, he announced that cops had arrested more than 100 people and seized 122 guns the preceding night.

That year - 1999 going into 2000 - 516 Baltimore residents called 911 to report gunfire, 75 of them between 11:55 p.m. and 12:05 a.m. Officers in the Eastern District were hit by remnants of shotgun shells while standing outside their station house. Across town in the Western, police found 300 spent shell casings on a single corner. Someone with a machine gun shot an electrical box and knocked out power to 51 homes. And a bullet crashed through a skylight of a house on North Glover Street.

In 2003, a police officer confronting a holiday reveler was shot in the hip. In 2002, a bullet fired into the air came down and hit a 19-year-old woman in the head as she watched fireworks at the Inner Harbor. One year, a city officer was heard on the radio saying, "In addition to all the gunfire, we have fireworks."

Baltimore Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III has made "bad guys with guns" his theme, and so far this year (through Tuesday), police have arrested 1,103 people on firearms charges and seized 2,608 guns. In all of last year, police arrested 1,226 people on gun charges and took 2,708 firearms off the streets.

In addition to extra officers, police have new tools to help. Sensors set up around the Johns Hopkins University campus identify gunshots and point police to a location, enabling them to respond quickly. A university spokesman said the system has been triggered six times this year, but none was confirmed as gunshots.

Police also are testing two gunshot sensors on East Monument Street, though results have been spotty, with just as many false alarms as actual gunfire detections. "It will be interesting to see what happens on New Year's," said Sheryl Goldstein, who heads the mayor's Office on Criminal Justice.

Busnuk said police should send out warnings about New Year's as early as the day after Christmas, to warn partyers to put down their guns. "I think a lot of people shooting guns really aren't criminals," the retired officer said. "I think a lot of people are just caught up in it, and a warning would stop some of the average Joes from doing this."

Moses, the police spokesman, noted the obvious, a statement given out every year by one police official or another: "When you fire those rounds up in the air, they have to come down."

His plea to the citizenry: "Celebrate in peace."

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