Some feel city covered up extent of St. Patrick's Day violence

Other officials praise police for quelling disturbance, note crime down in Baltimore

May 14, 2012|By Peter Hermann, The Baltimore Sun

On Saturday night, Denise Kostka and her husband, disturbed by loud voices, peered out from their eighth-floor room in the Renaissance Baltimore Harborplace Hotel and saw at least 100 teens massing on the street below.

"I never saw anything like that, ever," said Kostka, visiting from Springfield, N.J., to take in the sights and see her niece who lives in Federal Hill. Then they saw police surround a car. "I thought, 'Oh my God, it's "COPS" live,'" Kostka said, referring to the popular reality television show.

Baltimore police have for years combated youths descending on downtown, causing fights and other trouble, and have employed the same strategy: push them out without resorting to mass arrests, just as they did Saturday night. At the same time, police have battled a perception of Baltimore being ravaged by crime — even as crime rates have declined.

The twin problems have been at odds on recent weekends. No more so than on St. Patrick's Day, when police confronted a downtown mob larger and more violent than previously experienced. Public reports by police in March about that volatile night did not fully relate the scope of what's described on dispatch tapes obtained by The Baltimore Sun, when 500 youths converged, resulting in more than a dozen fights, up to three stabbings and one man left unconscious.

Authorities have to strike a careful balance of how much to divulge to the public to ensure people are safe without unnecessarily frightening them, said Lt. Col. Michael J. Andrew, who retired last year after 38 years on the city force.

"If the average person sees one police car, he's concerned. ... If they see a group of kids, they panic," Andrew said. "But police have to talk intelligently and honestly. They don't have to tell the public they had it under control, because they obviously didn't on St. Patrick's Day."

"I'm not saying you have to push the panic button and say Baltimore is out of control," he added. "If you overreact, you scare people to death, and then what have you accomplished?"

Kostka said she worried when she saw no media reports on what she had seen on Saturday. "It was awfully scary," she said.

Police said there were no crimes to report outside Renaissance Baltimore Harborplace Hotel that night. Police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said police were trying to disperse the teen crowds and encourage them to leave downtown.

Another police spokesman gave a similar account of what happened on the night of March 17.

But as The Baltimore Sun reported, another description emerged from police dispatch tapes. Obtained through a Maryland Public Information Act request, the tapes show that on St. Patrick's Day as night fell, police struggled for hours to round up the youths in downtown, the Inner Harbor and Mount Vernon.

Police called in reinforcements from throughout the city to contain the mob and move people out of the harbor area, all while dealing with more than a dozen clashes between youths from the east and west sides. An officer had to use a Taser to subdue one youth, and 10 arrests were made.

For more than two hours, waves of teens roamed through downtown as officers blocked off streets. Police played down the events to reporters even as they unfolded. And when asked questions in the following days, police discussed one stabbing and the Tasing and noted a large number of people.

The police commander on the scene that night declined to be interviewed, and on Monday Guglielmi said the police commissioner would not be available for an interview.

Guglielmi and the Central District commander, Maj. Dennis Smith, have defended the way police handled the dissemination of information.

"The incidents were managed appropriately by the Central District and information was made publicly available," Guglielmi said.

Andrew recalls years past when teens used to descend on the Inner Harbor on Easter weekend. One year, a group ran through the pavilions, turning over tables and upsetting people eating. Merchants shut down early, sparking even more complaints.

The retired commander said that police used the same tactic then as they do now — push the youths out without making too many arrests. "We became chaperons," Andrew said, adding that only a few youths caused real problems.

"I think you should be honest with the public and tell them what's happening," Andrew said. "They know. They see what's happing down there. … If you don't do that, I think in the long run it hurts you more."

For many residents and tourists, just one incident can mar their perceptions of the city. People frequently complain about violence and shootings that go unreported, and what is considered routine for Baltimore police can be unnerving for others.

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