Security threat at Baltimore police station raises questions about public access

The Baltimore Police Department arrested and charged Jason Armstrong, 29-years-old, after he entered into the Northeast District Baltimore Police Station with a handgun Jan. 6.
The Baltimore Police Department arrested and charged Jason Armstrong, 29-years-old, after he entered into the Northeast District Baltimore Police Station with a handgun Jan. 6. (Handout photo courtesy Baltimore Police Department)

The recent security breach at a Baltimore Police station — the second incident in five months — is raising questions about whether the city strikes the right balance between making such buildings accessible and protecting those inside.

On Tuesday, police said, a man brought a loaded .22-caliber gun into the Northeastern District station near Morgan State University to test security measures for the Black Guerrilla Family gang. That followed an August incident in which a man fatally shot himself inside the Southwestern District station with a high-caliber handgun he concealed while in custody.


As police officials re-evaluate department policies, City Councilmen Nick Mosby and Brandon Scott say a comprehensive security review is needed at city-owned buildings, including the precincts, City Hall and courthouses, to evaluate whether enough is being done to keep people safe.

Even at city courthouses, where metal detectors have been used for years, visitors have been caught with a range of weapons such as machetes, brass knuckles and throwing stars — not to mention handcuff keys.

"What I think we need to do is realize the buildings are safe, but they are not safe in a 21st-century manner," Scott said. "We should have a safety evaluation of all the buildings, especially after events like that. It should be for all public buildings. We should see what we could improve on."

Mosby said the Baltimore incidents, along with national concerns about White House security breaches, show the city needs to review security measures at public buildings. "We're living in a different age now, and it's critically important we do an evaluation."

City police declined to discuss security protocols in detail, saying that would tip off criminals. But Commissioner Anthony W. Batts said the department routinely evaluates policies and procedures for effectiveness.

Batts said he has had a "number of reports" conducted since Tuesday's incident and is making changes based on the findings.

"I am always assessing security," he said, calling it a high-profile issue. "We will look at 30 days, 60, 90 days, we will continue to assess, change and adapt."

Police increased security at the nine district stations after Tuesday's incident, ordering armed officers to stand watch at entrances and suspending a corrections program that brought violent offenders into the facilities to meet with parole and probation officers. Jason Armstrong, 29, faces multiple gun and drug charges in Tuesday's incident; he was at the Northeastern District station to meet a probation agent.

Some of Armstrong's friends and relatives dispute the police's version of events that he was testing police security for a gang.

His brother, Norman Armstrong, said, "He walked in there to see his parole officer — and all this other gang stuff? They're trying to humiliate him."

Norman Armstrong said his brother is not a gang member. Family members believe Jason Armstrong was tagged with that designation because he associated with BGF members when he was jailed for an earlier crime.

"It's a big misunderstanding. It's out of this world," Armstrong's friend Fernando Perez said of the alleged gang order.

City Solicitor George Nilson said officials work to strike a balance between keeping buildings accessible and safe.

"We have guards and you have to show your IDs ... but we don't operate fortress offices," he said. "That's good but it's potentially risky. The government is in a unique situation because we're supposed to be open for business and the public has a right to get into the buildings, but that doesn't extend to the right to bring in a gun."


Doug Ward, director of the Johns Hopkins University's Division of Public Safety Leadership, said the incidents at city police stations underscore a common public policy question: "How much can we afford and what are we trying to prevent?"

Ward said an evaluation of procedures at city-owned buildings makes sense in the wake of Armstrong's action.

"People want to be reassured," he said. "Are the policies current, do they make sense and are they actually being followed? That's just Management 101."

The debate centers on how much security the public will pay for, whether the measures guard against likely threats and how much freedom people are prepared to forgo, he said. But even the most rigorous security standards won't guard against every scenario, Ward cautioned.

At City Hall, guards monitor visitors, who must show identification, pass through a metal detector and provide a reason for their trip. Tight security has been provided at the city's official seat of government ever since a councilman was shot to death and four others were wounded in 1976 by a gunman looking for Mayor William Donald Schaefer. Schaefer ordered new security measures in the weeks after the shootings.

City courthouses also routinely use metal detectors to screen people for guns, knives and other weapons, and officials confiscated some 3,300 contraband items in the past year.

On a recent day, Major Sabrina Tapp-Harper of the Baltimore City sheriff's office provided examples of the items officers confiscated from visitors at the main courthouses downtown. Among those displayed on folding tables were a pink comb that slides apart to expose a knife and a folding knife disguised as a credit card.

Tapp-Harper said more than 300 arrests were made last year at the courthouses, the majority for drugs or disorderly conduct.

City police did not immediately provide data to show the number of weapons recovered at district stations and other city buildings in the last year.

Councilman Robert Curran said he believes the two city courthouses, police headquarters and City Hall are secure, and have been for a long time. He blames the death of his father, then-Councilman J. Joseph Curran Sr., on the gunman's rampage in 1976.

City Hall had moved to temporary offices while the Victorian-era structure on Holliday Street was under renovation. Articles from The Baltimore Sun at the time said the temporary offices at 26 Calvert St. had minimal security. Uniformed guards from private firms sat at the building's entrances, but did not routinely ask visitors for identification.

The elder Curran, who saw Councilman Dominic M. Leone dying on the floor after the shooting, had a heart attack that was a factor in his own death nearly a year later.

"City Hall is secure now, I can guarantee you that," Robert Curran said. "Police headquarters is very secure. The only real secure public buildings in the city are City Hall and police headquarters and the Mitchell [Courthouse] and Courthouse East. Outside of those four buildings, it gets a little thin. Let's put in that way."

Visitors must pass through a metal detector at police headquarters, but security at the nine district stations had not been as strict. Doors at some of the stations have been locked since Tuesday's incident and armed officers now greet visitors.

At the Western precinct, a sign posted on the door warns visitors that they'll be subject to search and must have identification. Another notice diverts those on probation or parole to a different location. Visitors enter a small vestibule and must be admitted to the lobby by an officer.


At the Northwestern, visitors also must be admitted by an armed officer. Once inside, they can sit in the lobby, where magazines are laid out on an end table.

Many of the district stations have a similar setup, allowing visitors to wait in a lobby while an officer sits behind a tall counter.

At the Southwestern precinct, the front entrance doors are locked and the windows blocked. Visitors must use the back entrance and knock on a locked door to speak with an officer before entering the building.

That station is where 38-year-old Tyree Woodson fatally shot himself in a restroom in August. Woodson, who had been brought to the station on attempted-murder and weapons charges, was on crutches and wearing a walking brace.

In 2012, an officer found a loaded .22-caliber handgun while he was placing a suspect in a holding cell in the Southeastern District station.

Shootings at police stations aren't unheard of. About four years ago in Detroit, a gunman entered a precinct and opened fire, injuring four officers before being fatally shot.

Security at government buildings and police stations varies across the Baltimore region and the nation.

In Howard County, for example, everyone who enters the Circuit Court building in Ellicott City goes through security — even court employees and prosecutors, said Staff Sgt. Darrin Granger of the county sheriff's office. No guns or other serious weapons were confiscated there last year.

Security there includes an X-ray machine for briefcases and bags, and a metal detector that visitors walk through. Deputies regularly spot small pocket knives, scissors and sewing needles, which visitors are asked to take back to their cars, Granger said.

No weapons were confiscated last year at state offices and other buildings secured by the Maryland Capitol Police, including the State House, said Terry Custer, a deputy chief with the state Department of General Services. The Capitol Police did make some arrests, including three for disorderly conduct at state-owned buildings in Baltimore and two for trespassing in Annapolis.

The Federal Protective Service, which provides security to federal buildings, prevented more than 1,200 prohibited items such as firearms and ammunition from being brought into buildings in Baltimore last year, according to the agency. The agency made three arrests in connection to those items.

In Philadelphia, visitors to the 22 district police stations can only enter a small vestibule area and speak to an officer through a window, said Officer Christine O'Brien, a spokeswoman. Before visitors can move past that area, an officer must punch a security code into a keypad. Few visitors get past that area; they can fill out any paperwork or complaints at the window.

Suspects who are taken inside the stations are searched by officers, she said. None of the 22 districts has a metal detector for the public.

At police headquarters, at least two officers are stationed at a metal detector 24 hours a day. Each visitor to that building must pass through the detector, O'Brien said.

Las Vegas, meanwhile, has four district command centers that are open to the public, said Officer Miguel Garcia. Visitors can only access a lobby area where police employees sit behind a bulletproof window, he said. No metal detectors are used.

At police headquarters, where civilian employees sit behind bulletproof glass, the public can only enter a specific area to get reports.

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said the city's security practices are constantly evolving, taking into account threats made to government buildings in Baltimore and elsewhere. She called on the public to help keep the buildings safe.

"I am concerned about the security of our buildings," she said. "What I know is, we take it very seriously. … Our hope is that we would continue to work in partnership with members of the community. We'll certainly do our part, but we also need help from the community.

"We just know that we have to do better, and it's going to take the vigilance of all of us to make it better."

Baltimore Sun research librarian Paul McCardell and reporters Mark Puente and Pamela Wood contributed to this article.