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Community group helps open police district to citizens

ChristianityBaptistJohns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center

Climb the steps and walk past the concrete columns that grace many Baltimore police stations and you'll encounter shuttered glass doors, blocked off by plywood, brown paper or the backs of file cabinets.

Somewhere along the way, the public entrances to four of the city's nine district stations became casualties as police outgrew their space, with citizens instead directed to rear doors where officers and handcuffed suspects come and go.

That will change in the Northwestern District on Reisterstown Road this week. The New Psalmist Baptist Church donated $40,000 to renovate and reopen the front doors with a sparkling new lobby and furniture that will provide a more welcoming approach to residents.

The project was pushed by Maj. Johnny Delgado, who spent six years in the district before being reassigned last week in a department-wide reorganization.

"It looked like an abandoned building," Delgado said in a recent interview. "I thought it was horrible for the community to subject them to walking through the same doors we bring prisoners and witnesses in. How can we have community policing if we can't even open the doors to the public?"

Enter New Psalmist, whose bishop said the project is one of several the church has taken on to help city government. "So often, we put the onus on the city or the county or somebody else," said Bishop Walter Thomas. "We can't solve all of the problems, but there are things we can do to make life better."

District stations are home base not only for patrol officers and detectives, but for residents who want to file police reports, make complaints or attend community meetings held in the roll-call rooms. But money for renovations has been hard to come by amid tight city budgets.

Police officials acknowledge that the buildings are in overall poor shape, a factor in officer morale. Projects to fix certain problems are in the works, but outside support is crucial, they say.

In the meantime, "it's not hindering the operability of any of the districts," police spokesman Sgt. Eric Kowalcyzk said of the public entrances.

The Northwestern, Southwestern, Southeastern, and Eastern districts all have inaccessible front entrances. Each was built amid a wave of new police facilities in the late 1950s under Mayor Thomas D'Alesandro Jr.

At the time they were built, the city had seven police districts and a population of 940,000 — about 34 percent more people than today. The police stations once had functioning courtrooms, judges' chambers, press rooms and space for the community.

Separate entrances for the public were designed so private citizens could enter the station houses "without having to watch drunks being booked while they wait to see an officer," a police colonel said in a 1955 Baltimore Sun article.

There are now nine districts, and courtrooms were moved out in the 1970s. But the department's districts have absorbed more responsibilities, such as the district detective units, and have run out of space.

Marty Howe, president of the Southwestern Police Community Relations Council, said frequent visitors know to head to the rear of the district station on Font Hill Avenue. "But if Johnny Q. Stranger would go to do something, naturally they're going to go to the front of the building," he said.

The Northern District has the most current police station — it was built in 2000 — and has a full-service lobby, though its walk-in traffic may be limited by its location on Cold Spring Lane just off Interstate 83.

In the Southeastern District station, located at the foot of Johns Hopkins Bayview, the police station is in the midst of a renovation, with work being done by the officers themselves. The station has a new roll-call room and a break room with a pool table and a patio. A workout center, new showers and a garage are also being built.

Not yet addressed: the closed-off front entrance.

"The front entrance is on our list of projects," Maj. William Davis said in an email.

Will Hanna, president of the New Park Heights Community Development Corp., said the Northwestern District station's setup was not only unwelcoming, but a potential safety risk to officers and residents.

He recalls Delgado discussing the need to improve the building's access for the public.

"The department didn't have any money to reopen the building, which I thought was a travesty that headquarters would allow that," Hanna said. "He had to raise the money."

Thomas said New Psalmist Baptist Church, which straddles the Baltimore County and city line, has previously partnered with city police, including working with them on a camp this summer where children develop a positive view of police. Their ministers also have been doing ride-alongs with officers, and the department had its helicopter visit one of the church functions for kids.

The project will be finished with Delgado starting a new assignment as citywide night commander, a move that irked some community leaders.

"At least before he left, he got that in place," Hanna said.

The Rev. Alfred Bailey, another pastor with New Psalmist, said the new lobby has a tall front desk, "like the old police desks from the movies," a seating area with new furniture, and "of course, the front doors." The lobby will be formally reopened at a ceremony Wednesday.

"We hope other churches and groups will see this as a positive model for them for things they can do — maybe not on this scale — to make life better," Thomas said.

Baltimore Sun research librarian Paul M. McCardell contributed to this article.

jfenton@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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