For the past six weeks, 50 homeowners in the affluent North Baltimore neighborhood of Guilford have waged their own war on crime by hiring private security guards to patrol the streets around their homes.
The private security force, made up of off-duty city police officers, has reduced property crimes and increased peace of mind without increasing the burdens on an already beleaguered Police Department, residents say.
But some city officials and urban affairs experts are not so positive about the patrol.
They see it as yet another lamentable example of citizens' lack of faith in traditional institutions. They criticize it as a piecemeal solution that will not lessen the city's overall crime problem. And they worry that it may hurt efforts to increase city spending on public safety.
Guilford resident Stuart Brooks -- who along with neighbor Bruce Fleming recruited 50 households in a five-block area to pay $10 a week each to finance the patrol -- said this week that the purpose "is to make sure our neighborhood's safe."
Noting that most of the crimes residents were concerned about were car break-ins and thefts and vandalism, Mr. Brooks, 50, said, "We don't have serious crime in Guilford. We're
going to keep it that way."
"I love the city. I don't want to be chased out [by crime]," he added.
Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said through a spokesman that the creation of privately funded security forces in individual neighborhoods could limit public support for his proposal to increase the city's "piggyback" tax and earmark a portion of the proceeds for a public safety fund to put more police on the streets.
"There's no sign of that at this point but, yes, it is a potential problem," spokesman Clinton R. Coleman quoted Mayor Schmoke as saying.
Councilman Anthony Ambridge, whose district includes Guilford, said it makes him "sad" that residents there felt they had to hire their own security force. He worried that the neighborhoods that could afford to hire such forces could ultimately be better protected than those that couldn't.
"Obviously, there's a need in Guilford for more police protection. There's a need in Johnston Square, too. We need to protect all citizens," the 2nd District Democrat said.
Johnston Square is a low-income, mostly minority community in the 2nd District.
Two urban affairs specialists at the University of Baltimore, Louis Gawthrop and Lenneal Henderson, agreed.
Private security forces pit "neighborhood against neighborhood" instead of having neighborhoods work together to develop a comprehensive solution to crime, said Mr. Gawthrop, a professor of government and public administration. He called them a "sad commentary on our society."
"What is the notion of democracy? It's the notion that we all join together to work toward making a good community in the broadest sense," he said.
Mr. Henderson, also a professor of government, pointed out that private security forces are used to patrol upscale neighborhoods in San Francisco and Philadelphia, and that volunteer members of the Nation of Islam are providing security at some housing projects in Washington. But he said, "It's not enough for residents to say 'I'm OK.' They have to participate in the broader issue of what to do about public safety."
In Baltimore, a special downtown benefits district will have a uniformed security force -- paid for by a surtax on commercial property owners -- on the street after Jan. 1 and residents of Little Italy have talked openly about hiring a private security force to patrol their community in the wake of several recent crimes there.
Mr. Brooks, an automobile dealership manager, said the creation of the Guilford Security Patrol was not intended to disparage police efforts but to supplement them.
"We understand the Police Department is overwhelmed. We're just trying to say, 'Hey, we're here to help,' " he said.
But police spokesman Sam Ringgold said, "The department doesn't see it as a supplement. The department sees it as secondary employment for 10 of our officers. It eases the concerns of the residents. But from our perspective, it doesn't do much."
Mr. Brooks said he wanted to use moonlighting policemen from the Northern District rather than private security guards because the police "know the area." He contacted a Northern District officer who had coordinated security for businesses.
Initially, only 24 homeowners expressed interest in the service, too few to get it off the ground, he said. But after a meeting at his home explaining the purpose, 50 homeowners in a five-block area in the center of Guilford signed up. In all, there are about 700 homes in Guilford, which is bounded roughly by Greenmount Avenue on the east, Cold Spring Lane on the north, Charles Street on the west and Southway on the south.
After lengthy negotiations with police officials -- who must make sure off-duty assignments comply with complex guidelines, and who wanted to make it explicit that any liability rested with the homeowners -- the security patrol began operations Sept. 10.
Under the program, the security force patrols the neighborhood seven nights a week in a car equipped with a cellular phone and pager whose numbers are given to participants. Residents can summon the security officer to investigate activity they consider suspicious or can call ahead and ask to be met at their driveway if they are arriving home late at night, Mr. Brooks explained.
"The presence of some sort of security is incredible," said Mr. Brooks. Last Saturday night, he said, two would-be car thieves were thwarted by a security officer who flashed his headlights at them just as they were about to break into a parked car, causing them to flee.
As do other off-duty city police, members of the security force carry guns and may participate in an arrest. But if they see a crime being committed, they are to call uniformed police, Mr. Brooks said. The security force's work has not yet resulted in any arrests, he said, adding, "But we're not looking to make arrests. We just want to get [crime] out of the neighborhood."
One resident, Ambadas Pathak, whose car was stolen twice last year, said he was "very happy with the program. It has provided much needed security."
But another resident, who declined to participate and asked that
his name not be published for fear of ostracism by his neighbors, explained, "We don't want to live our lives in fear and have people watching us all the time."
In a memo to their neighbors seeking $130 per home to continue and expand the service for an additional 13 weeks when the current period of patrols ends Oct. 24, Mr. Brooks and Mr. Fleming said the result of the first weeks of the patrol had been a "dramatic decrease" in minor crimes. The "peace-of-mind" knowing help is "only a minute away . . . is wonderful" because police response time to calls is often 15 to 20 minutes, the memo added.
But, according to police statistics, reported crime in all of Guilford dropped 12.4 percent in the first nine months of this year compared with last year.
Maj. Margaret Patten, Northern District commander, said that while police could take that long to respond to minor incidents such as keys locked in cars, the response times to assaults and robberies are much faster.
Mr. Brooks discounted the idea that the Guilford Security Patrol is evidence that increased protection is available only to those who can afford it.
"Any neighborhood can afford this program if people will participate," he said. "It's not a rich-poor issue. It's an issue of community spirit."