It stands about 7 feet tall, has silver teeth and a computer eye. Soon, each public housing high-rise in Baltimore will have one -- a steel turnstile being installed in a desperate effort to protect residents.
The turnstiles are the latest in an array of safety measures that so far have failed to keep violent crime and drugs from the 17 high-rises. Door alarms, time-lapsed cameras and security personnel hired to guard high-rise entrances have not slowed down crime.
"This is the last physical thing we can do," Col. William H. Matthews, head of the Housing Authority of Baltimore City police force, said of the turnstiles. "When these things are in, there will be nothing else we can do."
Police have made 357 arrests for trespassing at the public housing high-rises since January.
On Thursday, police raided an apartment in Flag House Courts in East Baltimore and found an AR-9 machine pistol, a bulletproof vest and cocaine. It is the same apartment complex where a a city police officer was shot on Sept. 18 and a sniper pinned officers for several hours in August. An armored car was used to rescue the officers.
Yesterday, the turnstiles were being installed at Lafayette Courts, another East Baltimore complex, where 1,745 residents live in six high-rises. The reaction from curious residents, who were not notified about the installation or operation of the turnstiles, was swift and angry.
"This puts me in jail," said Christina White, a 10-year resident of Lafayette Courts, the first complex to receive the computerized turnstiles. "This is the worst it's gotten here so far. It's really rough here and they are saying these are for our safety, but it's like a jail."
Anthony Towns, 25, who frequently visits his sister in the high-rise at 131 Aisquith St., worried about the seclusion that the turnstiles will create.
"It seems like it's going to be a prison to me -- they are going to lock everyone in," Mr. Towns said. "My sister doesn't have a phone. So what do I do when I want to come and visit her? Should I stand outside and yell at her window that I am here?"
Housing Authority spokesman Bill Toohey said Baltimore will become the first city to install turnstiles in all of its public high-rise housing projects. Housing authorities in Philadelphia, New York and Chicago have studied using the turnstiles, Mr. Toohey said.
A noncomputerized turnstile has been successfully used to control access to Fremont House, a West Baltimore public housing project for the elderly and disabled.
Crime decreased after Fremont House was converted to an adult-only building in 1986. There have only been three arrests there since January -- two for an outstanding warrant and one for an assault, said Housing Authority Police Major Cornelius J. Hairston III.
"These will cut down on trespassing," Maj. Hairston said, of the turnstiles. "The majority of our arrests come from people who do not live in public housing who come and stand around and wait for people to buy drugs. With the door wide open, they just come in without thinking twice about it."
Installation of the turnstiles will be completed late next week at Lafayette Courts. By the first week in November, they will be put into use after each resident is assigned an access card, a plastic card that activates a computer to open the turnstile.
Workers are also installing turnstiles at the other high-rise buildings at Flag House Courts, Lexington Terrace and George B. Murphy Homes at a cost of $20,000 per building. The $350,000 total cost, which includes a central computer to operate the turnstiles, is being funded from a federal Drug Elimination Program grant, Colonel Matthews said.
By the end of the year, all high-rise residents will have to slip their computer coded cards through a tracking device to unlock the turnstile and gain entrance to their buildings.
Guests will be announced and let in by security personnel.