Talk to residents and business owners alike and they agree they want to see more police officers walking instead of driving.
They want a cop they can talk to, a cop they can see, a cop who understands their problems and can tell, street to street, door to door, the good guys from the bad.
For the most part, police leaders agree. But sprawling cities, a deluge of emergency calls and strained budgets have turned the old-time walking beat cop into a luxury.
Baltimore's police commissioner, Frederick H. Bealefeld III, wants to change all that. He's using a $10 million federal grant awarded to the city to hire 50 officers, 25 of whom are already going through the training academy. And when they graduate in a few months, they'll find themselves on foot instead of in a car.
The first instinct, Bealefeld said, is to put them in high-crime areas, scenes of recent shootings and homicides. "But I want to challenge convention," he said, saying he's ordered his patrol chief to concentrate on "quality-of-life enforcement," deploying the new officers where they can help combat prostitution, public drinking and so forth.
These are the types of crimes that Baltimore residents often say get lost amid the murder and mayhem, and can frustrate them enough that they threaten to leave the city if their garbage can gets stolen one more time, or their planter is broken, or their wife gets propositioned for sex while carrying groceries inside.
"I think that having a footman in those areas could do more to garner community support and reaffirm our commitment to making neighborhoods safer," Bealefeld said.
For years, city police have gone back and forth on foot patrol, most often implementing the strategy after high-profile crimes or in business districts. Among beat cops, such an assignment can be seen as punishment. An effort to put foot officers in the Greenmount Avenue corridor met with criticism from the police union, even though business owners praised the effort.
The argument has always been that it is too costly to dedicate a single officer to a few streets or a neighborhood, knowing that he or she cannot quickly respond to an emergency just blocks away. Patrol officers complain that they are strapped by staffing levels and trying to answer more than 1 million 911 calls a year.
And while we will probably never return to the old, espantoon-swinging neighborhood cop on the beat who knew everybody's business and then some, Bealefeld said he doesn't buy the argument that an officer on foot is something cities can no longer afford. "I think it's more cultural than financial," he said.
"I'm not proposing that we put 80 percent of our police force out on foot," the commissioner said. "With a million calls a year and in a city this size, we have to have some degree of mobility. No question. And in terms of violent crime, you need a very quick response."
But he said a foot officer who talks to people instead of driving by them can help "break down the fear of crime." He noted that "most of the cops in this Police Department have no experience, no real experience, being deployed on foot."
The money he's using comes from a program that began under President Bill Clinton to put 100,000 cops on the nation's streets called Community Oriented Policing. Sheryl Goldstein, head of the mayor's Office on Criminal Justice, said the last time the city got money under the COP grant was 2001. That time, the money funded officers for three years.
If all works out, residents will soon see more cops walking around Baltimore.