Baltimore police order stations to stay open 24/7 after citizen complaint

Police change policy on station hours after complaint.

Baltimore police commanders on Tuesday ordered all city police stations to stay open around the clock after the story of a man who said he was robbed of his bicycle and found the nearest station closed drew concern from community leaders and elected officials.

Col. Darryl DeSousa, the department's patrol chief, ordered all nine of the city's district stations to "maintain lobbies that are accessible to the public 24-hours a day" — with someone there to speak to anyone who shows up.

Police would not say how much the change would cost in money or manpower. The department spends tens of millions of dollars each year on overtime.

They said they were responding to an opinion article published in The Baltimore Sun on Monday in which Connor Meek described his efforts to contact police after a group of teens robbed him of his bike on the Gwynns Falls Trail one night last month.

The 27-year-old Gwynns Falls man said a 911 dispatcher didn't understand where he was located, so he went to the Southwestern District station. He said an officer at the station told him it was closed between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m.

Meek was eventually able to begin filling out a police report with a detective, he said, but then was directed to the Southern District station. But once there, he said, he was told that station, too, was closed from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. He was able later to complete a police report.

"It's just hard to live in the city and pay taxes and buy a house next to the police station because you want that security, and then this is how they treat you," Meek said in an interview Tuesday. "It's just an us-versus-them mentality, police versus the citizens."

His story struck a chord among officials. City Councilman Ed Reisinger — who represents parts of Southwest and South Baltimore — said stations are a "sanctuary" for people in trouble, and shouldn't close overnight like a business.

"This ain't no damn restaurant," he said. "That is stupid with a capital 'S.' That jeopardizes public safety when you do that. What's next, the hospitals? The ambulances?"

Councilman Brandon M. Scott, vice chairman of the council's public safety committee, said police stations "should have always been 24/7," and Meek's efforts to get help should have been handled differently.

"Telling him to go away is unacceptable," Scott said.

Police officials said they agreed. Detective Jeremy Silbert, a police spokesman, called the incident "alarming and disappointing," and said the department is investigating.

"We want to assure our communities the Baltimore Police Department is here to serve them and ensure their safety, regardless of the time of day," he said in a statement.

"Some districts have had to temporarily close their front desks during the overnight hours due to manpower shortages," he said, but that will end.

Howard Libit, a spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, said the mayor "agrees that this is something that should be looked into, and that it is unacceptable."

Police stations in Baltimore, Howard and Harford counties are open at all hours, officials there said.

"Because public safety issues can arise at any hour of the day or night, our precincts are accessible to the public at any hour of the day or night," said Elise Armacost, a Baltimore County police spokeswoman.

Police stations in Baltimore have been open around the clock in the past, city officials said, but hours have changed over the years.

Capt. Eric Kowalczyk, another spokesman, said the department conducts "routine assessments of how we operate on a continuous basis" and makes staffing decisions "based on all of the issues at the time, including manpower and security issues."

He said summer hours at district stations have varied, with some closing at 10 p.m. or midnight.

Police and Rawlings-Blake's office both declined to say when the closures first began, who ordered them and for what reason, or specify the hours that were most recently in effect at each district station.

Security at city police stations has been under review for at least six months.

A man taken into custody last year in connection with an attempted murder smuggled a handgun into the Southwestern District station and used it to fatally shoot himself in a station bathroom, police said.

Then in January, a man walked into the Northeastern District with a loaded handgun, marijuana and cocaine and told officers he'd been acting on the orders of Black Guerrilla Family gang leaders to test security at the station, police said.

After that incident, Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts said his department would review security measures.

"I am always assessing security," he said at the time. "We will look at 30 days, 60, 90 days, we will continue to assess, change and adapt."

Doug Ward, director of the Division of Public Safety Leadership at the Johns Hopkins University, said it is uncommon for police stations in major cities to be closed.

"In mom-and-pop, one- or two-person, small-town police departments where the officer's out doing rounds and they close during certain hours of the night, that may be reasonable, but in Baltimore City you would expect that they would be open," he said.

Ward said security in police stations is a real concern, but should never cause a department to shut itself off from the community it is meant to protect.

"There is greater risk in a police car then there is in a police station. There's risk associated with everything, and I don't think we can be free if we just cower down," he said.

Officer Tanya Little, a spokeswoman for the Philadelphia Police Department, said that "enforcing the law is a 24/7, 365-days-a-year job."

"It doesn't stop," she said. "We can't say, 'Hold your complaint or whatever it is you have going on in your life until normal business hours.' That's just not practical."

The Rev. Cortly "C.D." Witherspoon, president of the Baltimore chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Council, called the closing of police stations "egregious" and "a continuation and pattern of bad decisions by this administration so far as its policing strategy is concerned."

"It seems to me the Police Department is in complete disarray," he said. "They owe an explanation to the community."

Witherspoon said it's reasonable for police to balance manpower to keep officers on the street, but turning away members of the public when they are seeking help is unacceptable.

"You should have someone there to welcome people when they come to the precinct to take the complaint," he said. "My heart goes out to [Meek]. It could have been a stranded senior citizen, an out-of-town person who knew nothing about Baltimore. It sends a very, very bad message."

krector@baltsun.com

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