A fear grows in Brooklyn

Residents of Brooklyn neighborhood want to see increased police patrols there

Call it informed speculation. When four people who live there presented me with the problem of hookers and hopheads in Brooklyn, on the south side of Baltimore, I suggested the lack of police response was a matter of staffing and priorities. Not enough cops, too many homicides across a sprawling city to mount an effort against the so-called victimless crimes of prostitution and illegal drugs in a relatively stable section of town.

I was sitting in the living room of Lisa Bowling's comfortable, 1931 four-square house with her husband, Chris, and two fellow Brooklynites, Bobby Rothe and Kevin Hodges.

All of them are homeowners, and all of them are concerned about crime creep: more and more prostitutes who gather on sidewalks day and night; men in expensive sedans and pickup trucks that form what Rothe describes as a virtual caravan of johns looking for sex. The prostitutes, he says, sometimes solicit customers near a church and an elementary school.

Then there are drug dealers and their customers, drifting from intersection to intersection. "It's been getting worse in the last two years," Rothe says.

He and Lisa Bowling say police have done little to address these problems, which is why a frustrated Bowling had been contacting me by email, the first time back in October 2015.

"We can count the whores and johns and drug dealers as they stroll down the street," she wrote. "We no longer call the police. They basically shrug when the known whores solicit directly in front of our houses. We laugh bitterly to ourselves. …

"We have been to meetings with the police where they state that it's a 'victimless crime.' Funny, I don't think they have whores in front of their houses every day," she wrote. "We understand that police resources are being allocated to bigger crimes such as murder. But even at one murder a day, does it take the entire police force?"

On a weekday afternoon in mid-December, Rothe drove me around, showing blocks where he and others have seen prostitutes waiting for customers. He pointed to a middle-aged woman in a nylon jacket who, he said, was a regular streetwalker.

The annoying problems described by these Brooklyn residents are the kind that eat away at the desire of middle-class people to maintain their commitment to city life. In fact, Bowling was prompted to contact me after reading a column about a young father from another part of town: He'd become so fed up with drug dealers in his Northwest Baltimore neighborhood that he was thinking of moving his family out of the city.

Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis was responsive to that story; he spoke to the young man and promised attention to his street.

But Davis has his hands full in a city infested with drugs and guns, a depressingly high per capita homicide rate, a depressingly mediocre homicide clearance rate, and an overworked, demoralized police force in need of new recruits.

The problem of staffing is so bad, particularly for street patrols, that police union President Lt. Gene Ryan warned last week the department had reached "a tipping point of being unable to protect the city and its citizens."

That's scary talk. Ryan has been known to hurl verbal grenades, and this last one sounded particularly hyperbolic, even Trump-like.

But Davis and Baltimore's new mayor, Catherine Pugh, responded promptly, agreeing Friday that staffing was a serious problem and promising to beef up street patrols by 100 officers.

Also Friday, police responded to my questions about the problems Bowling and Rothe described in Brooklyn.

Lt. Jarron Jackson, a department spokesman, said Southern District commanders and vice squad detectives are well aware of complaints about prostitution. He said there had been 16 related arrests over the previous 28 days. The work is ongoing, Jackson said, much of it undercover and not obvious to residents.

Meanwhile there's been another, darker trend — a spike in violence, including the slaying of 83-year-old Jimmy Herget, a neighborhood fixture known as "the mayor of Brooklyn." He was stabbed to death in his home Dec. 16, just two days after my tour of the neighborhood, which included a swing through Herget's block on Cambria Street.

Overall, there have been 14 shootings or homicides in Brooklyn since Nov. 1, including eight along the Hanover Street corridor.

That's the kind of crime creep Bowling and her friends have feared. They worry about their safety, about neighborhood stability and about property values. These are people — an entire neighborhood, really — that the city administration should be working full-speed to keep.

"We love it here and would like to stay," Lisa Bowling said. "We have great neighbors and great houses. We want what everyone else wants: a peaceful, safe neighborhood. We would like that in Baltimore City.

"The police need to be proactive, instead of reactive," she said. "Criminals need to know it's not open season in Brooklyn."

drodricks@baltsun.com

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