On St. Patrick's Day, upward of 500 youths converged on… (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore…)
As an unseasonably warm St. Patrick's Day drew to a close in Baltimore, teens by the hundreds swarmed downtown, keeping one step ahead of police while battling from corner to corner, mostly with fists, sometimes with knives.
As authorities watched from a helicopter and on video from surveillance cameras, youths marched seemingly at will through the Inner Harbor and streets north and west, frequently clashing that Saturday night. Dozens of officers called in from across the city scrambled to keep up with the attacks, shutting key intersections and trying to push the youths away from the center of tourism.
"I need somebody to go to Pratt and Light [streets] for the male who was assaulted, Charles and Pratt for the assault, Pratt and Light again for the juveniles," a police dispatcher urgently called out in a single breath amid the melee. "I need somebody to go to Pratt and Light, a medic is trying to get through. Somebody has stomped a male in the crowd. The [ambulance] just passed a large group of kids assaulting the male with one child on the ground."
The full scope of the March 17 disturbance has not previously come to light. Recordings from more than three hours of dispatch tapes obtained by The Baltimore Sun through the state's Public Information Act reveal a far more violent landscape than police initially described — as well as several incidents, including a reported knifing at a Harborplace pavilion, that were not disclosed.
A police commander and the department's chief spokesman defended how the agency confronted the youths, making 10 arrests, saying that at no time did events spiral out of control.
"It's never the idea to make mass arrests," said Maj. Dennis Smith, commander of the Central District. "The idea is to ensure everybody's safety. If you find the aggressor, you go after him. ... We had over 500 people come from different sides of town. But they didn't take over."
That Monday, police confirmed at least one brawl, a stabbing on Water Street and said an officer had possibly subdued a youth with a Taser just north of the harbor. The 10 people arrested, all juveniles, were charged with disorderly conduct, assault and curfew violations.
But the tapes reveal other calls as well. Among them were a fight that left a man unconscious on Redwood Street, guests at the Hyatt Regency Hotel being harassed and frightened youngsters taking refuge inside a Days Inn to escape an angry mob.
Calls for help piled up as the crowd swelled. Also downtown were crowds from nightclubs and theaters, and other holiday celebrants. Witnesses said it appeared as if a sports stadium had suddenly emptied.
"Let me know what you see in reference to the kids," the dispatcher asked the police officer in the helicopter, called Foxtrot. "They're everywhere," he answered.
Azhar Bhatti, a driver for Checker Cab, found himself in the middle of a mob scene, trapped at Baltimore and Light streets.
"There was a lot of people, fighting, arguing, cursing, fists flying," he said. "You didn't know who was fighting who. Police were there and they did their best, to be honest, but it looked like the number of police officers was not enough for that mob. It was scary."
Bhatti, a native of Pakistan who has been in America for 13 years and driven a taxi here for one, said youths kicked his cab's doors and pounded on the hood when he stopped at red lights.
At Baltimore and Light streets, he said, the road "was blocked and 35 to 40 people, young kids, were walking across. They're looking at you, staring at you. ... You're not going to get out and chase them."
Police were so busy that victims of petty crimes such as vandalism and thefts from cars were told to walk to the Central District station on East Baltimore Street to file a report. When an officer tried to break in for a driver's license check on a routine car stop, the exasperated dispatcher retorted, "Ma'am, you have got to be kidding."
"It seems to me that the police responded in an immediate fashion and prevented it from getting completely out of control," said City Councilman William H. Cole IV, whose district includes much of downtown. He noted that officers watching surveillance cameras "could almost predict trouble before it started."
Anthony Guglielmi, the department's chief spokesman, said the disturbance "was managed."
"We didn't have to announce a press conference to call in the National Guard," he said. "There were chaotic times, I'm not questioning that. But this speaks to the department's ability to be prepared to marshal resources and get them to where the hot spots are."
Baltimore police are still examining the St. Patrick's Day incidents, and their response, in preparation for another holiday — July Fourth — that will draw big crowds downtown. Last year, the Inner Harbor celebration was marred by the fatal stabbing of a tourist from Alabama and the separate shooting of a 4-year-old boy in the leg.