LIVING WITH FEAR FOR LIVES TOUCHED BY CRIME, FEELING SAFE IS A THING OF THE PAST

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Crimes can be counted and cataloged. They have names -- murder, rape, robbery, assault. Fear of crime is harder to pin down. But it finds its way into every city home. It's why we don't just lock the door, we bolt it. It's why we install alarm systems and why we check the back seat of the car before getting in. It's why we can't sleep at night.

In Baltimore, residents have reason enough to fear crime: In 1990, 305 people were murdered in the city and 687 rapes were reported. Homicides in 1991 are on a record-setting pace.

But beyond the statistics are the victims -- both of crime and the fear of crime. The four people profiled below have all been touched by crime. They are hurt by it, afraid of it, and at the same time, they accept it as part of life in the city. Crime is so much a part of their lives that its absence would seem strange, and one, a policeman, would be out of a job.

The 9-year-old East Baltimore boy interviewed is typical of children who stay home alone after school. Drug dealers and guns don't shock him, but that doesn't lessen his fear that they might hurt him or his family. An elderly woman who remembers better times in West Baltimore can't walk out her front door without wondering whether someone will ransack her house.

A policeman in Baltimore's Western District tries not to think about the danger he faces each night on the street as drug dealers become bolder and the prison system more clogged. He jokes about it instead. But he says he's more cautious than the younger cops who don't have a wife and six children at home.

A Bolton Hill homeowner wants to stay in the city. But every year, the stories get more and more outrageous -- gun-point muggings, break-ins, stolen cars. Where, she asks, will it end?

IF REGGIE RICHARDSON could give shape and substance to his fear, it would look like the inside of his closet.

"When I go home and I'm by myself, next door the neighbors make a lot of noise. I run and lock all the doors. I lock the handle on the screen door and the other door. I run upstairs and shut my door.

"I have sticks in my room, and I hide in the closet. I just stay in the closet. I open the door a little and stay there until my mother gets home."

His fear rises from experience. It happens when you're 8 years old and you watch a man gun down another man on the street. That was last summer.

"It was nighttime and me and my friends were playing football, and my mother was sitting there keeping score of the game. I went to get the ball down the street. . . . I heard the shot and I saw a man fall to the ground. I couldn't really describe [the shooter], he was wearing all black."

One morning Reggie's fourth-grade class at Federal Hill Elementary School gathers to talk about the crime they've seen and their reaction to it. Most of them live outside the affluent neighborhood where they attend school, and they are eager to tell their stories. The words come rushing out.

A fourth-grader talks about the time her brother stepped on a drug needle, triggering a mad rush to the hospital. Another tells of how he sat on a couch and watched in silence when gun-toting drug dealers ran into his family's apartment as police chased them.

A third says she and her family check the locks on their door two or three times a night. She lies in bed, worrying that someone will climb up the fire-escape ladder that leads to their bathroom window. One boy says he and his brother killed their dog with a BB-gun because they mistook it for a robber trying to crawl in the dog door.

Reggie, who has frank eyes and a shy smile, raises his hand when asked about feeling afraid. He talks about the times when he has to stay at home with his 5-year-old sister after school while his mother works. Home is a project in East Baltimore.

"It sounds like somebody's on our steps. In my neighborhood, there's a lot of crime out there. There's a lot of break-ins," he says.

You don't show anyone that you have a house key, he says; they might follow you home.

Since Christmas, Reggie has felt safer. His grandmother, Alvidene Richardson, now babysits for Reggie and his 5-year-old sister most days after school. Because she lives in South Baltimore, he now attends Federal Hill.

Reggie's mother, Zena Richardson, a 25-year-old corrections officer, works an evening shift and picks the children up about 11:30 p.m. He worries sometimes about her job.

"Sometimes she talks about somebody breaking out of jail. . . . She tells me what it's like, the people in there that she works with," he says.

Reggie and his friends play cops and robbers.

"When we play, all of us usually are thinking about . . . what if we were real police and they were real crooks and how we would handle that situation."

MARGARET BROWN UNLOCKS the bolt to the door of her West Baltimore row house and peers outside. To her right are the only neighbors she still knows on the block she has lived on since the 1950s. To the left are strangers -- young, loud and insolent. She's afraid of them.

She pads around her red-carpeted living room with its hundreds of knickknacks and the saved remnants of good times -- flattened Mylar balloons, Easter cards, an Orioles seat cushion. Until her husband died six years ago, she didn't worry too much about crime invading her home.

Then came a day in February when violence found its way inside. Mrs. Brown was in her kitchen fixing lunch when two bullets came through her living room window. They were stray bullets from an assault weapon that ripped through a city street, leaving two men dead and two others wounded in an apparent drug dispute.

Two months after the shootings, the bullet holes in the windows are covered with masking tape. A knickknack shelf near the window bears a gash from one of the bullets. She fingers the gash with a faint sigh.

"There was a time in this neighborhood you could go anywhere, to the store, not even lock your doors. You could go to the church, come back to the windows and doors open, and you could find things just as you left them. But you can't do that anymore. And right now, I'm afraid to say too much because I live here," she says.

Mrs. Brown is a small woman in a white-flowered housedress, gray stockings and flat slip-on shoes. Her black hair, slightly graying, is cut close to her head. She has a strong smile and a quick laugh and eyes that often fill with tears.

At another time, she was a beautiful young bride from Richmond, Va., who married an usher in her church and moved to Baltimore to be with him. In a black-and-white wedding photo that she pulls from a manila envelope, she is radiant in a white satin gown carrying an armload of white flowers. Next to her is her slim, handsome husband.

Life in their Formstone row house was filled with friends and church events. They had no children, but she worked as a housekeeper in the same house for 22 years and took a motherly interest in her employer's two children. She and her husband worked hard to pay the mortgage on their home.

"When I moved in here, oh, this was a beautiful neighborhood. There used to be a drugstore on that corner, a five-and-dime, and a furniture store on that corner. It was really nice when I moved in."

But the neighborhood changed -- gradually, it seems to her. People moved in but their family ties were unclear. Drugs were sold on the street corners. People drank on the street at night.

"It's hard for me to get used to these rough doings because I was brought up differently. I never knew what hard times meant. I didn't have to go from door to door to beg bread. I always had plenty of everything."

She is asked why she doesn't sell her house and move. The question strikes her as strange.

"No, honey, this is my home," she says. "When I move, I plan on selling it, but I want to stay here as long as I can, and I worked hard for it."

So she takes the bus to Lexington Market weekly to do her grocery shopping. She does her laundry at a nearby laundromat. She walks to church, holds Bible meetings and visits with the only neighbor she still knows. She has a friend who sometimes comes to stay with her at night.

In the evening, she watches the 6 p.m. news, then reads the Bible until she's tired enough to fall asleep. But it's never an easy sleep. Sometimes she lies in bed and hears people running through the alley behind her row house. She hears bottles cracking on the sidewalk in front.

The back and the front. They are the touchstones of her safety.

"My nerves are bad anyway. When I'm in the bed, I can hear if somebody comes to the door and I'm awake."

During the day, she tries to find a balance between being friendly and inconspicuous.

"Sometime you're going along and you're almost afraid to say anything to anybody because you don't know what you're getting into," she says. "I try to treat everybody nice. I go out and say, 'How you do?' or I'll say to them, 'It's a beautiful day' or something like that.

"It seems like to me, I don't know, this could be a holy neighborhood. There's a church there in this corner, just two doors away, and up above there's another church. And it seems like we're not. We don't know God. If we really knew him, we would be loving with one another."

Mrs. Brown reported the bullet holes in her window to the police and has applied for assistance from the city to replace the window. But she hasn't heard back about what will be done.

"I'm back there taking care of my own business. I don't got no children, or nobody out on the street to bring nobody no trouble.

"And I'm not looking for trouble, I'm looking for peace and happiness."

OFFICER MICHAEL LEAR KNOCKS ON the door of a building in the 1200 block of W. Fayette St. about 8 p.m. There's no answer. A few minutes later, he sees a woman walking up the street toward him. She's holding the hand of a boy about 2 and a girl about 4.

The woman, who had called the police, tells Officer Lear that her boyfriend threatened her the night before and tried to break into the apartment. He was up on a ledge, trying to pull up a window when another officer spotted him and arrested him. But he was back out on the street the next day and had come back, threatening her again. She gave him his things, like he asked, but he said he'd be back.

Officer Lear tells the woman he'll drive by later to check in on her. He tells her to stay with a friend so she can call the police if her boyfriend comes back. And he walks away knowing there's little he can do unless the boyfriend makes good on his threat.

But you can't let it get to you, says the five-year veteran of Baltimore's Western District.

"You won't be able to stay on this job if you do, because you see so much of it. You try to be sensitive around family members. But if you try to take everything to heart, it'll just kill you," he says.

Officer Lear decided to become a policeman at 33, after more than 11 years of working at the Bethlehem Steel shipyard. It was something he always wanted to do, but he put it off because he married young and had six children to support. Then the shipyard closed down and he took his chance.

He was assigned to the Western District -- the smallest and most violent of the city's nine. Of the 305 homicides committed in the city in 1990, 78 took place in the Western.

It houses the city's most hardened criminals and its most vulnerable victims -- the poor, the elderly, the disabled, the very young. The Western police take a sort of pride in surviving the worst.

Every once in a while, though, something filters through the emotional armor.

"Probably the only thing that really kind of got to me was last summer. I had [to deal with] a little baby that was dead -- and my little girl was just a couple of months old at the time. This one was probably about six, seven weeks old. I was holding this little thing and had to turn it around looking for bruises and that really kind of got to me. As soon as I went home I had to grab my daughter, put her to bed and I was hugging her. . . . It makes you think."

Out on the street, Officer Lear tries not to think about what might happen. You don't get scared until you get home, he says. Like the time a drug dealer pulled a gun on him when he had been out on the street for eight months.

"I started chasing him and he started going down the front of his pants. And the call was for a male with a gun, so I immediately took my gun out and told him about three or four times to put his hands where I could see him and stop," he says.

"He had sweat pants on underneath his pants, and I think the gun must have got stuck under his pants. . . . I'm running right at him, and he turns and pulls the gun at me.

"I said, 'Jesus Christ, I have no cover.' They made fun of me for a while, calling me Wyatt Earp because I was jumping against the wall trying to get a little bit of cover in case he got some shots off. So I'm high in the air, hoping really to scare him. I fired one shot and hit him in the hand, shot the gun out of his hand."

He acted on instinct, he said. Only later, it hit him that he might not be so lucky the next time.

The district's camaraderie is what keeps Western cops sane, he says. It's how they get by knowing that drug dealers have better weapons than they do.

"I wouldn't leave this district. You learn a lot over here. You just do everything. In some districts you might put three years in and see a couple of stolen autos."

"We really take care of each other over here," he says. "It's a dangerous district and you depend on each other -- for your lives."

From his police cruiser, Officer Lear sees young men crowding the street corners, and he knows why they are there. Some of them will be arrested for selling drugs. But it almost doesn't seem to matter.

"You lock up the same ones in the same areas all the time. There's not much you can do about it though. A lot of them will tell you, 'I'll be out tomorrow.' "

Drugs seem to have removed the sentiment of remorse from some violent crime, he says.

"There was a time when nobody would hurt old people. Nowadays, they'll shoot you for anything, they'll shoot you for no reason at all."

But it is the attitude of children that disturbs his sleep.

"I love kids and I try to talk to them, especially when they're young. Because once they get about 10 or 12 or above, they hate us."

DOREEN ROSENTHAL IS THINKING about buying a gun. She doesn't want to leave the Bolton Hill row house that has been her home for the past three years. But feeling so vulnerable to crime weighs on her mind.

"There's a part of me that would like to have a little gun in my pocket. I know I would shoot someone, and I would get angry if a person violated me in some way."

She has stopped short of buying the gun because she worries that it could be taken away and used against her. She read that somewhere, she says, probably among the articles on crime she consumes weekly. Knowing about crime and how to prevent it has become important to her. In Bolton Hill, it comes with the mortgage.

"I used to jog in the evening and I don't now. I can't tell you if there's more crime this year than there was two years ago, or if I'm just more aware of it."

She points to a gas grill still inside its box in her kitchen.

"I bought that grill but I'm not putting it outside until I get a chain and a lock. I never thought about that before, never.

"When it's warm weather, our greatest joy is to sit on our back porch. My next- door neighbor told me that she doesn't feel comfortable anymore. If she's reading, she feels like she has to keep looking up to see if there's anyone in the alley."

The affluent Bolton Hill neighborhood, which abuts several run-down West Baltimore neighborhoods, is known for its high car-theft rate, for break-ins and for muggings. Its residents have tried to fight back with a citizens patrol, house alarms and outdoor lights. Residents are acutely aware of the crime problem. The ones who move in without knowing about it often don't stay long.

"I know one person who . . . moved into an apartment in Bolton Hill and was held up at gunpoint within a month," Mrs. Rosenthal says. "Within 24 hours, she was looking for a new apartment."

Mrs. Rosenthal's own row house was broken into shortly after she moved in. The house had an alarm system, but the alarm on one window with an air conditioner hadn't been connected. The burglar found that window.

Still, she doesn't want to leave the city. And she believes that she won't truly doubt her own safety until something terrible happens.

"On the one hand, I am more and more aware of these things, and I'm more conscious of the things that I do.

"On the other hand, I'm not really doing anything. I'm not doing the patrol in the neighborhood and I have a little button gadget that I could take to my car with me -- if you push the button, the house alarm goes off -- but I don't take it. I always forget to do that. There's a gap between what I know and what I'm doing about it."

Fear of crime follows Mrs. Rosenthal as she walks to work downtown and back home again. It restricts her movements and it costs her money, but she's willing to live with that -- for now.

"I think there's joy living in the city," she says. "I wouldn't like to leave."

She's working to help non-profit organizations raise money -- her way of attacking the underlying social ills that lead to crime. She also tells herself that no one is ever completely safe from crime, and she accepts her anxiety as inevitable. "People get used to living with fear. Part of it is to act as if it's not happening. What about the people in California who live on the faults?"

But it wouldn't take much -- a mugging, another break-in, an intruder in her yard -- to make her reconsider.

"There's so many more tax receivers in the city than there are taxpayers, and if there continues to be a problem, the taxpayers are going to leave," she says. "At least I have some control over it, at least I have the option. I feel sorry for the people in the projects who don't have that option and don't have that control. The fact is that they are suffering more."

SUSAN SCHOENBERGER is a copy editor for The Sun. She reported on crime for The Sun's metro desk from September 1990 to March 1991.

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