Frustrated by crime in their neighborhood and what they see as a lackluster response by Baltimore officials, a group of Canton residents is raising money for a private armed security patrol.
Austin Rooney, an organizer of an online public safety group in the neighborhood, launched a fundraising page Thursday and quickly racked up thousands of dollars in donations. Rooney said he hopes that an extra patrol will deter crime and that people’s willingness to contribute money will send city leaders a message.
“I hope this will provide the city with a very clear statement that residents in Canton don't feel safe right now,” the 27-year-old Defense Department videographer said.
The fund drive reached its initial $3,200 target within seven hours after being put online, but support for the idea was far from universal in the neighborhood, sparking debate over the best ways to keep safe and how race plays into people’s perceptions of crime.
The Rev. James Hamilton, the priest at Church on the Square, wrote a lengthy post on the page of a popular neighborhood Facebook group condemning the idea of private patrol.
“This will lead to racial/economic tensions,” he wrote. “It is unavoidable. Do we really know that this is going to make us safer? Wouldn’t one incident risk Canton being ground zero for the next uprising? Are we really seeing the big picture here?”
The crowd-funding effort is aimed at paying for a monthlong trial during which a single off-duty police officer would patrol parts of the neighborhood with higher levels of crime. Off-duty officers working private jobs can still make arrests and use force, the same as if they’re on the clock for the city.
The effort to recruit private guards took on greater urgency for Rooney after Antoine "Georgie" Rich, 46, was shot to death in Canton over the Labor Day weekend — the second homicide in the neighborhood this year. In June, local bartender Sebastian Dvorak, 27, was shot to death on Boston Street.
Robberies in the neighborhood have more than doubled since 2014, spooking some residents.
“We’re tired of the same old having to take weeks on end and doing meeting after meeting to get things done,” Rooney said.
Rooney said Thursday afternoon that he’d engaged in debate over the idea online and he thought some important points had been raised, especially on how to measure the patrol’s effectiveness and how to coordinate with the police.
Concern about crime gripped city leaders over the summer as the homicide rate hit unprecedented levels and other kinds of violence climbed, but Rooney said Zeke Cohen, the councilman who represents Canton, seemed to have more ideas about long-term solutions than plans for immediate action.
“There’s a genuine need in the community for something more immediate,” Rooney said. “I don’t see why that has to be a dirty word and can’t work hand in hand with long-term solutions.”
Cohen said he understands the urgency of addressing public safety issues in the city and is in touch with police commanders in the Southeastern District almost every night. At the same time, he said, the city needs to act to address the poverty that drives crime. “We need to come together as a community around solutions right now,” he said.
Cohen said he heard from people Thursday who were afraid of crime in the neighborhood, but said he also heard from people who worried a private security patrol would lead to racial profiling.
Rooney said he is working on coordinating with the Canton Community Association. He developed plans for the patrol on a Facebook page he runs for Canton residents interested in boosting public safety and invited its 1,400 or so members to chip in. On Thursday, dozens of people pledged as much as $100 each to help the effort.
Doug Kaufman, the president of the Canton Community Association, said he was aware of the group’s work but that the association had yet to take an official position on it.
Thomas “Tommy Bee” Bourne, a Canton resident who seeks to teach people to keep themselves safe in the city, acknowledges the area faces some crime problems. But he worried that the crowd-funding effort was fueled by panic and not well thought out.
Some online neighborhood groups have been criticized for becoming a forum for flagging black people in predominantly white areas, even when there’s no evidence of them committing a crime. Bourne said he’s concerned a private guard would translate that attitude to the street.
“I’ve never felt safer than I do in Canton,” he said. “Now, as a black male, I'm feeling less safe with the prospect of having a private security force working around. That just screams profiling waiting to happen."
T.J. Smith, a Baltimore Police Department spokesman, said the department looked forward to talking to residents and business owners about their concerns. Smith blamed crime in the southeastern part of the city on juveniles.
“We have dedicated resources to Southeast Baltimore in response to robbery patterns and have made many meaningful arrests and apprehensions,” he said.
If Rooney’s effort is successful, Canton would become the latest neighborhood to back up the police with private security. Some are funded through a special tax, while others rely on voluntary payments. Other neighborhoods have volunteer patrols.
Guilford in North Baltimore has had private security since the early 1990s. Curtis Campbell, a member of the Guilford Association board, said the patrols are a crime deterrent and that while crime has increased this summer, things could have been even worse without them.
Campbell said the patrols augment police at a time when “their resources are completely maxed out.”
Across the country, other neighborhoods — typically wealthy ones like Canton, which has a median income more than double that of the city as a whole — have made efforts in recent years to raise money online when anxiety about crime has risen. Those efforts have sometimes been criticized for layering extra protection on already generally safe neighborhoods, while doing nothing to help areas with more serious crime problems.
Rooney said he recognizes that Canton is one of the safer parts of Baltimore, but his effort wasn’t aimed at making anyone worse off or dividing the city.
“I think the city has an obligation to protect its citizens,” he said. “This is not an effort to try to keep anyone out of Canton; the only people we're trying to keep out of Canton are those who are trying to do bad things.”