Parish broke free and protected her boyfriend's head with her body, and was knocked unconscious. The attackers then scattered.

"They were using my head for a soccer ball - back and forth, back and forth," Williams said in an interview.

Williams, who is white, said he believes race played a factor, with one of the attacking teens, who were black, accusing him of shouting a racial epithet, which he denies.

But Williams said he was especially disturbed by what he described as a strong gang presence. He said he was told by city police officers that gangs had been moving into the area the past few weeks, and that not enough police were on duty to combat the problem. Williams said that officers told him there had been 11 similar assaults that night alone and that police believed the attacks were related to gangs.

Central District Maj. John Bailey rebutted those claims, saying police have stepped up their presence and that there is "no indication of any gang affiliation with any of this stuff."

"They don't come here wearing red and blue," Bailey said, referring to colors often associated with Bloods and Crips. "They're wearing normal clothes. I think these kids just become empowered by being in large groups. They're showing off for one another."

Police sources not authorized to comment agreed that the attacks could be juveniles simply acting out, but that gang initiation rituals have in the past been blamed for similar incidents.

Cole, who has recently been venturing out at night with police to observe the area's problems, said the department is doing an "outstanding job putting resources in place to nip whatever trend may be out there in the bud."

"I think the word is out that if you want to come down and act like a jerk, you can do it downtown, and we need to send a clear message that we're not going to tolerate it," Cole said.

Bealefeld and Dixon have spoken out about police shouldering too much of the blame and parents not controlling their children.

"Everybody thinks it's someone else's job to do everything," Bealefeld said on a recent radio appearance. "People have to step up and be accountable. Who's paying attention to these [kids]?"

Neighborhood activists in Mount Vernon believe several recent attacks there were related to a BYOB "bottle club" located in the basement of the Belvedere. The club has "Teen Takeova" nights on Saturdays, which sometimes have attracted hundreds of young people. Police and residents say the club has been the catalyst for a double shooting and a host of assaults and other complaints. They are pushing for the club to be shut down.

Robert F. Cherry, a former Baltimore homicide detective who heads the city's Fraternal Order of Police lodge, was jumped in that area last fall. A group of eight to nine young men stole his hat, then turned on him after he attempted to get it back. He was able to fight them off and was not seriously hurt.

Cherry confirmed the incident but declined to comment further. The union has been speaking out about deficient patrol strength downtown after off-duty officers were prohibited from working outside bars and clubs, and Cherry said he did not want to exploit the incident in which he was attacked.

In South Baltimore, police believe at least some of the attacks have been committed by area students. In an e-mail to residents, Southern District Maj. Scott Bloodsworth said additional officers have been assigned to the Inner Harbor during evening hours, and extra officers now patrol in Federal Hill and the Otterbein to assist with crowds and robbery prevention on Fridays and Saturdays.

Williams, the New Jersey officer, said that police "can only work with the tools they're given" and that he wrote to Dixon because he believes the city needs to provide more resources.

"They need to swamp the area with police officers, and that's not happening," Williams said in an interview. "When you wait for something to happen, this is what's going to happen."