As crime falls, hopes are up for some Disbelief mingles with feelings of safety

THE BALTIMORE SUN

As word hit the streets yesterday that violent crime in the city has dropped by nearly 10 percent, Baltimoreans reacted with joy, hope, disbelief and outright cynicism.

The decline was the first major one since the introduction of crack cocaine into Baltimore a decade ago. For some, the news confirmed what they sensed, what they had been seeing on the streets in front of their homes and businesses: less drug dealing, increased police patrols, more citizens willing to get involved.

"I just feel safe," said Bolton Hill resident John B. White, a hairdresser at Giovanna salon in Mount Washington. "I see police all over, and I see fewer drug dealers."

But in some parts of the city, still beset by shootings, robberies and assaults, many of them byproducts of the drug trade, no newspaper headline could convince people that their neighborhood was a safer place to live.

"It's a sham," said Joseph Ward of Hunting Ridge in West Baltimore.

According to the statistics released Tuesday by the Baltimore Police Department, crime in the first nine months of 1996 decreased in almost every category except homicide, which increased by 8 percent, and auto theft, which rose 2 percent. Overall, major crime fell 7 percent, violent crime decreased 9.6 percent, and property crime dropped 6.2 percent.

Police are encouraged, although homicides are still a concern. The homicide rate was unusually high the first few months of the year but has stabilized. At one point early in the year, there had been 26 more homicides than at the same time in 1995. Now, the figure is 11, with less than a month to go.

In terms of homicide, the Eastern District is the most dangerous, with 58. The Southeastern District, which encompasses Fells Point and Highland town, has had the fewest, 16.

The Central District, which includes downtown, recorded the most robberies, 1,360. Car thieves were most active in the Northeastern District, with 1,586 thefts reported. The Northern District, home to some of the city's most affluent neighborhoods, had the most burglaries, 1,906.

What follows are residents' impressions of crime and crime-fighting in their neighborhoods.

North Baltimore

"I see myself walking more places than I used to," said White, the hairdresser. "The neighborhoods are turning around, and the neighborhood patrol is out. That's helped," he said.

At the Village of Cross Keys, Baltimore's first gated community, Elaine Beck and Claire Loecher -- retirees doing their shopping -- were glad to hear the news.

"We go to the symphony and the opera, and I don't want it to be impossible to feel comfortable doing these things," said Loecher, a former teacher at Friends School.

But not all those interviewed in North Baltimore yesterday said they believed crime had gone down.

At the Baltimore Zoo, Fred Redel said he felt safe working at the admission booth. But in his Belair-Edison neighborhood in Northeast Baltimore, he said, "there's something always going on. Cars being broken into, kids hanging around the corner."

"To me, crime hasn't gone down," he said. "I think they're kidding themselves if they think it has."

At the Waverly branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, Rosemary Anderson, a private-duty nurse, said she was surprised to hear that the crime rate had gone down.

"From what I see and hear, it should be at least at the same level," she said, noting that she reads The Sun's crime blotter carefully for muggings and other crimes in Govans, where she lives.

West Baltimore

An informal survey of residents and business owners in West Baltimore found widespread disbelief about the dip in violent crime.

"Burglary is down here because we have a citizens patrol in the community. It's not because of anything the police did," said Ward of Hunting Ridge.

"If you have a big dog, you're safe; otherwise, forget it," said the owner of Brutus, a Rottweiler.

Two blocks east of Ward's home, violent crime is frequently a topic of conversation at the Village Hair and Beauty Center in the Edmondson Village Shopping Center. To deter crime, "we work irregular hours," said Diane Addison, who has owned the shop for 12 years.

Addison said she does not feel safe in the neighborhood.

"If I could move my shop somewhere else -- where it was safe -- and have the same clientele, I would move," she said.

A few doors down, two-time armed robbery victim Kevin Richard, 33, said he thinks crime appears to have declined because fewer victims are reporting crimes to police.

"Most guys don't call the police if they're robbed. They don't have any faith in the criminal justice system," said the Uplands Apartments maintenance worker.

"Crime isn't down," he said. "If anything, it's worse because everybody's on drugs, nobody's working, so they have to rob and steal to get the drugs."

"My mother is afraid to even stay home by herself," Mitchell Morgan, 34, said as he passed out sandwiches after the noon service at New Psalmist Baptist Church in West Baltimore. "Even if you have gates on your windows, people still try to come in. It's going to be bad until they get these drugs off the street."

Also at New Psalmist was Deborah Fenwick, 41, who said she worries about becoming a crime victim.

"I certainly don't feel any safer, but I just trust in the Lord," she said, clutching a Bible to her chest.

East Baltimore

Residents said they were seeing results from some of the Police Department's most high-profile initiatives.

In East Baltimore Midway, where more than 100 police officers raided drug dealers' turf in Operation Midway more than two years ago, residents say the open-air drug markets have been kept at bay.

"They didn't get rid of them, but the dealing has gone down," said Walter Brown, an area resident.

The Rev. Anthony Johnson, pastor of Mount Hebron Baptist Church, said he thinks police have adopted a new attitude since Maj. Wendell France took over the Eastern District in August.

"It shows in the way they interact with the community," he said. "They're more aggressive now. They get out of their patrol cars to confront people who loiter in the area.

Johnson said drugs were a serious problem in the neighborhood when he arrived 11 years ago. "The dealers would approach me, not knowing who I was, and try to get me to buy from them," he said. "Things like that no longer happen. There's less congregating in the area now. The increased patrols have really made a difference."

Elroy Christopher, who moved from the west side of the city to Luzerne Avenue six years ago, had nothing but praise for the officers who patrol the neighborhood.

"The police are doing a great job. The statistics prove that," he said. "The problem isn't the police, it's our state's attorneys. They need to change their policies. I don't think anyone feels safe traveling at night because the justice system keeps letting the criminals back out on the street."

In contrast, a merchant at Old Town Mall said he was dissatisfied with police response to requests for increased patrols.

"There's still a lot of vagrants loitering in the area, making the mall look like a very threatening place," said Seymour Farbman, owner of the Diplomat Shop, a men's clothing store. "People refuse to shop here because there's an insufficient police presence in the area."

"Business has been so bad I'm closing up shop on Dec. 31," he said.

South Baltimore

LTC Lynette Robbins, a resident of the Cherry Hill Homes public housing project and mother of a newborn, said she had noticed no decrease in crime. This year, her neighbors' windows have been shot out and her mother was struck by a bullet.

"I sure don't feel any safer," she said.

In some southwest city neighborhoods policed by Southern District officers, however, residents say they feel safer. There are new trees on the streets, and houses are being boarded up instead of staying vacant.

At a corner grocery on South Gilmor Street, Don Lim said he feels secure enough not to bother with bulletproof glass. "I don't need, I don't like the bulletproof glass," said Lim, 42. "I like to be close to the people, talking."

But not more than a block away, 10-year-old Latorria Hirrison said she and her younger brothers are worried about the fighting, often between young blacks and whites, in the neighborhood. "My mother says it's time for us to move," she said.

Sam Moore, 25, lives at South Charles and Randall streets. "Where I live, it's definitely South Baltimore, not Federal Hill, despite what some of the yuppies might tell you," he said. "We have drug dealers. We have crime.

"I haven't seen a decrease in the drug traffic," said Moore, a counter clerk at Sam's Bagels & More on Light Street. "I get up for work at 4 a.m., and at that hour, the dealers are still out on the street."

But Moore said he feels safe walking to work in the dark.

"I live in one of the safest areas of the city," he said. "I mean, there are certain areas of the city you stay out of after dark. My neighborhood's not one of them."

Pub Date: 12/05/96

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