Baltimore police say they plan to change some tactics from last year's Fourth of July celebration to make sure the violence that stained the event won't happen again.
Police will use low fencing to restrict access to the Inner Harbor and will shift officers to potential trouble spots such as transit stops as the night progresses, officials said Monday. Several hundred officers, including some from the Maryland State Police and the Maryland Transportation Authority, will patrol the harbor area. They'll be on horseback, on bikes and in cars, as well as on foot.
"The bottom line is, we had a few incidents last year committed by a few people, and this year we want to do better," said acting Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony E. Barksdale. "We are ready for the event."
Last year's celebration was marred by two post-fireworks incidents — a visitor from Alabama was fatally stabbed at Pier Six, and a 4-year-old was wounded by a bullet that police believe was shot into the air. And in recent months, reports of attacks by groups of youths roaming through downtown also drove weeks of debate about safety.
And now, city officials are scrambling to recover from a severe storm that left widespread power outages and problems stemming from inoperable traffic lights to dark, sweltering homes and businesses.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said the weekend storm that rocked Baltimore won't derail police security at the Inner Harbor on Wednesday but noted that a follow-up storm could stretch resources to their limit.
"We know we have enough resources if there are no other intermediary weather concerns," she said. "We have enhanced deployment in the harbor. I'm pleased it's showing results. I'm confident it will be a safe Fourth of July."
Marvin L. Cheatham Sr., a civil rights leader with the National Action Network, said he's noticed the Police Department working more with the community and is optimistic the event will be peaceful.
He called on parents to take responsibility for their children's actions — disciplining them with "tough love" when they do wrong. And he asked the city to provide "more and better" activities for young people.
"You can count on one hand the number of venues tailored to young African-Americans," he said.
In response to concerns about violence, city officials decided to fence in last year's New Year's Eve fireworks at the Inner Harbor, restricting access to nine entry points. Police will adjust that tactic for Independence Day, using low "bike racks" instead to manage the flow of visits, said Deputy Commissioner John Skinner.
Police believe a 6-foot-high fence isn't necessary and the lower barriers will work just as well to control the crowd. In addition to the fireworks display, the day's events include a concert beginning at 4 p.m.
Skinner also said police will shift the deployment of officers from fixed positions throughout the night to adjust to crowd patterns. For example, as the fireworks show is winding down, deployments will be beefed up in areas such as transit stops.
"We'll be trying to get ahead of the crowds as the crowds are leaving," Skinner said. "As the event progresses, we'll be taking resources from one area and aggressively moving them into other areas."
During the Independence Day celebration, which can draw 200,000 people or more to the Inner Harbor area, Barksdale said police will be taking a no-tolerance approach to disruptions. He noted that the city has had several large-scale events downtown — including New Year's Eve and the recent Sailabration — that went off without any major incidents.
"Years ago, we tended to say, 'Get out of here, go home.' But we've seen that we can't do that. If you come to the Inner Harbor and you can't behave in society, then we are making arrests," Barksdale said. "If you've looked at the reporting lately for downtown, the mayor's plan for downtown is working, and we're going to keep that going."
In recent months there has been a debate about safety downtown amid reports of groups of young people committing assaults and robberies. The most visible incident was the St. Patrick's Day assault on a Northern Virginia man who was punched, stripped of his clothing and robbed — much of it recorded by bystanders and posted online.
Two Baltimore County lawmakers — a Republican and a Democrat — said in May that suburbanites had become wary of venturing into the city and complained that officials weren't doing enough to combat such attacks. Rawlings-Blake dismissed such concerns as akin to "dealing with hecklers" and criticized Del. Pat McDonough, the Republican, for using what she said were racially charged terms.
City Councilman William H. Cole IV, who represents downtown, noted that the area is the fastest-growing part of the city — its population has increased by 35 percent since 2000.
Cole said of the criticism of downtown, "It's a bit frustrating, because I live here year-round. What's unfortunate to me is, some people take a couple horrific but isolated incidents and define what downtown Baltimore is. To me, that's not a fair representation. People continue to move here because it's safe, enjoyable and vibrant. I'm raising three kids in the middle of downtown, and it's a thoroughly enjoyable experience."
Federal Hill Neighborhood Association President Ryan Hada said Baltimore has a record of providing a "great event, well-managed and well-organized" for the Fourth of July.
He expects police to provide "appropriate protection" for visitors as they have in years past.
Police wouldn't comment on the number of officers to be deployed Wednesday — after last year's event, officials said 600 officers were on hand — but said there will be "several hundred" from various agencies.
Among the technology police will use is a live feed from the police helicopter, known as Foxtrot, that will be streamed into tactical command centers.
"A lot of people are betting against us for the Fourth, but we're all in this and we want a big day for Baltimore," Barksdale said.