By Peter Hermann, The Baltimore Sun
5:23 PM EDT, May 19, 2012
Visitors to Baltimore's downtown on summer weekends will see up to 50 additional police officers, a show of force aimed at preventing a repeat of St. Patrick's Day, when hundreds of youths battled and a tourist was beaten — scenes the mayor described as "a black eye for the city."
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake toured the streets around the Inner Harbor and downtown for two hours Friday, the first night of increased police presence. During the late-night walk, she made her first public comments since reports that the disturbances on March 17 were far more extensive and more violent than police had initially described.
While she praised officers for pushing unruly crowds away from the city center without resorting to mass arrests that night, the city's chief executive also said authorities were caught off-guard by the sudden influx of people on an unusually warm, festive holiday that fell on a Saturday and taxed police in the city's premier entertainment spots, from Canton to Federal Hill.
"Hindsight is 20-20," Rawlings-Blake said. "But the benefit of hindsight is what you see now, which is a different deployment strategy that would be better able to respond to unforeseen spikes in population."
She called the violence "horrible," including the videotaped beating of the tourist who was knocked to the ground, robbed and stripped naked outside the courthouse on Calvert Street in the early hours of March 18. Several people attacked the man as others watched and recorded the action with their smartphones instead of intervening or calling 911. Police have made four arrests in the case.
Rawlings-Blake said that incident showed "the worst of us. … It's not something that makes you proud."
The mayor's tour was billed as a routine survey of the Police Department's summer deployment to deal with the typical increased volume of visitors to the harbor and other downtown attractions as the tourist season gets under way. But this year's response stands out: It deploys the most manpower since 2010, when violence connected to the club and bar scene worsened, and entails better coordination of resources and increased surveillance.
The St. Patrick's Day disturbances two months ago made headlines only recently, after The Baltimore Sun obtained police dispatch tapes. Those recordings revealed the full scope of the rowdy night that ended with at least two stabbings and more than a dozen fights as huge crowds converged. Eventually, police from across the city were called in to help.
A state delegate who represents Baltimore and Harford counties also made news last when he put out a statement referring to "black youth mobs" and urging that state troopers patrol city streets. The delegate, Republican Pat McDonough, said the Inner Harbor should be declared a "no-travel zone."
Rawlings-Blake's office dismissed the statements as a "racially charged publicly stunt," but McDonough's comments further inflamed the already sensitive issue of downtown crime. City officials are promoting 30-year lows in homicides and other crime categories, while simultaneously combating an image that Baltimore is riddled with violence that goes unreported to the public.
On Friday night, Rawlings-Blake was joined by Deputy Commissioner Anthony Barksdale and Col. Dean Palmere, the chief of patrol, along with her new chief of staff. Palmere briefed the mayor on the new downtown deployment plan, which includes dividing the Central District into tiny zones to better manage assignments.
Charts displayed near a large police van listed quick contact numbers for supervisors, and a flat-screen television mounted on the side offered a live camera feed from the police helicopter flying above.
Most visible to residents will be the increased police presence. In addition to the extra 50 officers assigned to foot posts, sheriff's deputies will be stationed around the Circuit Court buildings on North Calvert Street.
And city school police will stand guard outside the Gallery at Harborplace. The mayor said the unusual assignment — paid for by city police, not the school system — enables the police to expand their presence and take some pressure off the city force.
"We have issues with school-aged kids," Rawlings-Blake explained. "Who better to stand out here then the people who see them every day?"
Up to 20 of the officers stationed downtown will be from the police academy class that graduated Friday. Their first day with a badge and gun came at Saturday's Preakness.
Authorities are also beefing up the technological capabilities of surveillance cameras. More than 100 cameras are trained on downtown streets, and 450 others are positioned elsewhere in Baltimore.
The city is testing a high-definition camera outside the command center on Howard Street. It provides a crisp image and eliminates washout from flashing lights, and it may one day replace the other cameras. Police also are fine-tuning a license-plate reader that will be on some cameras and that use a laser beam to scan plates and relay information to a command center.
And for the first time, General Growth Properties, which runs The Gallery and the Harborplace pavilions, has linked its internal video cameras to the Police Department, so police can now watch inside and outside the shopping center.
"We're certainly doing our best to maximize the resources that are available and doing our best to create a safe environment downtown," Rawlings-Blake said.
On her walk, the mayor chatted with police officers, residents and visitors.
Wearing an Orioles sweat shirt, she popped into Brio, the new restaurant on Pratt Street across from the harbor and smiled at the packed house. "Such an asset," she said of the Italian eatery that filled a long-vacant storefront.
Diner Lisa Ambrose snapped a picture as her companion, Joe Doran, 61, said they live in Washington but come by boat to Baltimore virtually every summer weekend, docking at Harbor East and strolling over to the Inner Harbor.
Doran said he hadn't heard of the St. Patrick's Day disturbances but shrugged it off "like mosquitoes in the summer," noting a recent gathering of unruly teens in downtown Washington that caused a scare. He said he has never felt unsafe in Baltimore or encountered any problems.
After chatting with Doran, Rawlings-Blake said that "people who grow up in the suburbs tend to think of Baltimore like it's a different country. But people from outside the area, like the people there from D.C., they love it. … People from outside the region have a much different, and better, opinion than people who live in our own backyard."
The walk took the mayor by the intersection of Calvert and Redwood streets, where the most violent fights took place on St. Patrick's Day. It is also the location of the expansive and upscale nightclub Club Dubai, at the historic Mercantile Trust and Deposit Company building.
Come January, the building will become the home of the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, drawing many people from the suburbs, the mayor said, and a decidedly more subdued crowd to a space that previous tenants have tried to transform into large-scale clubs that could handle live music and 1,500 patrons.
In 2010, when the club was the Velvet Rope, police demanded it be shut down after a fight inside led to what they described as a "near riot" outside that involved at least one man with a gun. Rawlings-Blake said the transformation from club to theater will tamp down the nightlife scene and help a Marriott-owned hotel across the street.
"We put a lot of pressure" to make the change, the mayor said. "We were not happy with the management." But, she jokingly added, "Those Shakespeare actors, they can party."
The mayor has been criticized not just for the violent St. Patrick's Day weekend but also for her silence on the subject. Before Friday, her aides and police officials had dismissed the reports as overblown by the media, and the mayor had said nothing.
Marvin L. "Doc" Cheatham, the former head of Baltimore's NAACP chapter, said he was "appalled" at the lack of response from city leaders. He also said the departure Aug. 1 of Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III complicates the situation and could jeopardize current strategies.
"We have a summer that is coming," Cheatham said. "We have rec centers that are closing. I'm not sure we have a police leadership that can handle what is coming. … We have got a problem. We're lucky we didn't have a major confrontation between the community and the police."
Cheatham said that "youths have a right to go places they want, but they can't conduct themselves as a mob. And that's what this was: a mob. Parents, aren't you asking your child where he's going? And when the child comes back, [asking] what happened?"
The talk about crime and safety comes as the city gears up for a series of high-profile events, some of which will draw national television exposure and tens of thousands of tourists.
Saturday's Preakness will have barely faded from memory before June's 2012 Star-Spangled Sailabration, commemorating the bicentennial of the War of 1812, complete with tall ships and a Blue Angels flyover. Then come Fourth of July fireworks, which were marred by violence last year, followed by the Grand Prix through downtown streets on Labor Day weekend.
What city officials want to avoid are images that Denise Kostka brought home to New Jersey from her visit to Baltimore a few weeks ago. She said she looked out her downtown hotel window to see hundreds of teens massing on the streets, and then police surrounding a car.
It wasn't St. Patrick's Day, but she went home vowing never to return to a downtown hotel, likening the experience to watching an episode of the reality TV show "COPS." The incident she described barely registered for police, who said they encouraged the group to disperse.
Rawlings-Blake conceded a disconnect between what officers might view as "handled" and what bystanders might see as a frightening mob.
"I don't think it helps anybody for the Police Department to be hysterical," the mayor said. "They need to be strategic. They need to be responsive. They need to be agile. And I think that's what you saw. No one wants unruly teams of people, whether they're black, white, young, old. We want to have a harbor that continues to be an asset for residents and visitors alike."
At same time, she said, "I'm not going to excuse away that individual's feeling, like they were watching a reality TV show, because you don't want to see it, particularly in the downtown area, which has the fastest-growing residential population."
Rawlings-Blake said she wants police and others "making sure we're learning from every weekend, from every incident."
"Hopefully people will see what we're doing," she added. "I think the numbers speak for themselves. You can plan and plan, and then you'll have unexpected, unforeseen circumstances. When an unforeseen circumstance presented itself, I think our department went into action."
But, she said, when it comes to curtailing crime downtown, "We have to get it right."
Copyright © 2013, The Baltimore Sun