On a warm Friday evening in July, Patterson Park was buzzing. Players filled the basketball courts, and kids took to the swings at the playground.
Around 7 p.m., still in the daylight, about 11 kids, ranging from elementary- to high-school-aged, jumped the fence surrounding the Patterson Park Pool. They climbed onto a green metal power box on the east side facing the playground and hoisted themselves over the tall fence.
They swam around the deep end of the pool, which officially closed at 6:30 p.m. One teenage boy climbed onto one of the lifeguard chairs and dived backward off it.
The fence-jumping kids illustrate an access issue with the city’s public pools this summer that city officials blame on a severe lifeguard shortage. The after-hours swimmers also have sparked a larger conversation about how the city’s pools are policed.
Due to the shortage of lifeguards, the city-operated pools have limited hours and capacity. And the Baltimore Police Department is using its helicopters, collectively known as Foxtrot, to patrol the pools after hours.
Around 8:30 p.m. June 30, Foxtrot was seen hovering over the Patterson Park Pool and using a loudspeaker to order after-hours swimmers to leave.
In a statement, the BPD said the incident was part of the “daily infrastructure checks” Foxtrot does at the city’s pools. The aviation unit cost $6.1 million in the 2022 fiscal year, according to the city budget.
“Foxtrot observed about 20 individuals inside the Patterson Park pool, hours after it was closed,” the statement reads. “Officers informed the individuals that there were no lifeguards on duty and for their safety ordered the individuals to exit the pool.”
Lindsey Eldridge, BPD’s chief spokeswoman, said monitoring the pools is part of Foxtrot’s daily routine. Essentially, the helicopters patrol all the pools while they’re already up in the air but don’t take flight with the sole purpose of patrolling them.
After Fox 45 published a video of the June 30 incident, some on social media called the police use of the helicopter this way unnecessary and an excessive use of force, as well as a waste of taxpayer money and resources.
City Council member Zeke Cohen, who represents the area around Patterson Park, spoke out against it in a tweet and said he asked BPD to stop using the helicopter to chase kids from pools.
In an interview, Cohen said that although he doesn’t believe the police intended malice with the helicopter, it comes across as unnecessary. He said there are alternatives other than Foxtrot.
“I actually think it is far more demoralizing for children to see what looks like a military helicopter flying over them, telling them to leave,” Cohen said. “And I think that we, in Southeast Baltimore at least, have some really skilled officers who have strong communication skills, and I think could effectively ask young people to leave.”
Benjamin Cambell, a Patterson Park resident, called the use of Foxtrot invasive and said he used to hop the fence to the city’s pools as a kid.
“Baltimore City, they waste time on unnecessary things,” he said.
Campbell called the lack of youth recreation centers and activities the bigger problem.
Dugina Duran, who was at the Patterson Park pool one Friday in July but left when it closed, called the use of Foxtrot to patrol the pools excessive.
“We’re kids, and it’s summertime,” the 16-year-old said.
While Duran doesn’t think the city needs to extend the pools’ operating hours, Jater Luna, 15, who was there with her, said the pools should close later. He said the current hours don’t allow for spontaneous trips, and the pool is closed by the time he leaves his summer job.
Sierra Williams of Southwest Baltimore also said the pools need to be open longer, until 10 p.m., to aid in giving teens something to do.
“Tire these older kids out,” Williams said.
Whitney Clemmons Brown, spokesperson for the city’s Recreation and Parks Department, said in an email that the current lifeguard shortage means the department can only open 12 of the 20 city-operated pools and splash pads.
Currently, the department has 51 lifeguards on staff; it needs 105 to be fully staffed. Clemmons Brown said the pool hours coincide with the park hours, which closes at dusk.
“Additionally, when we looked at best ways to operate while managing the challenges of the lifeguard shortage, we set times based on peak operating hours,” she said. “Traditionally, there has been critically low attendance beyond 7 p.m.”
Clemmons Brown said kids swimming after hours is a common issue the department deals with year to year, even when it’s been able to extend the pool hours in the past.
The city’s pools are open from 1 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and 11 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Some working parents and teens forgo the pool because of those hours.
As Jonathan La Touche, a city resident, sat under the trees near the Patterson Park playground watching his 5-year-old daughter, Jordan, run around, he said the pool’s hours don’t accommodate his schedule as a working parent.
“My kids and I are missing out on all that Baltimore has to offer,” La Touche said.
His sentiment is shared by the teens who jumped the fence. One 16-year-old girl who was swimming after hours said the pool rules and hours are too constricting.
“It closes too early for me,” said the girl, whom The Baltimore Sun is not identifying because she is a minor who was trespassing.
In the past, Clemmons Brown said, the department was able to extend pool hours, but it cannot do so due to the lack of lifeguards.
Cohen said the city needs to provide teens with things to do during the summer. He said his office is planning a teen night Friday at the pool when kids can swim later.
“It’s been a hot summer,” Cohen said. “Everybody’s mental health has been taxed. And let’s figure out all the ways we can to support our kids and provide them opportunities. And to me, that’s what the teen swim night is all about.
“That said,” he added, “we also want to communicate that it is unsafe for young people to sneak into the pool at night, when there’s not a lifeguard and that it puts their own safety in harm’s way.”
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A common sentiment among the kids in the pool after hours was that it’s their personal responsibility to ensure they can swim or maintain themselves in the water without a lifeguard present — if you can’t swim, don’t jump the fence.
However, the Baltimore City Fire Department rescued a 15-year-old boy from drowning at the Roosevelt Park Pool while he was swimming after hours at 9 p.m. July 24.
Ernest Le, president of the Patterson Park Neighborhood Association, hasn’t witnessed the police helicopter at the pool, but said the situation isn’t about one side being right or wrong. He said he has sympathy for both the kids and police.
Le feels the neighborhood should step up and look for ways to address the issues beyond police interference.
“It’s not ideal,” he said. “I think that we don’t want kids thinking of the police as like an occupation force who’s going to show up, chase them off from literally up in the sky. And there’s got to be a better way to deal with this.”