Police Lt. Carmine R. Baratta Jr., walking the beat in Fells Point, paused at a dilapidated warehouse on Thames Street and shook his head at the discarded wine bottles, soiled mattresses and broken furniture inside.
"It almost defies description," the veteran Baltimore officer said of the homeless hangout, as he held his nose against the stench. "It's beyond a dump. But people live here. The police aren't the answer to this, but police are taxed with dealing with it."
Baratta wasn't making idle chatter. He was speaking into a headset wired to a cellular phone clipped to his gun belt. His voice, and his description of one of the city's most troublesome eyesores, was broadcast live to 300,000 listeners of Baltimore's top-rated morning radio show on WQSR (105.7 FM).
Baratta used the moment to highlight police frustrations about crime and grime and to give radio listeners a small dose of his daily routine.
Yesterday's show was part of Officer Appreciation Week, an opportunity for citizens to thank the city's protectors.
The four-hour broadcast from the lobby of downtown Police Headquarters by the Rouse & Co. morning team offered city officials a unique opportunity to highlight the department and a just-announced 9 percent drop in crime.
"Find something to do," the department's public affairs director, Robert W. Weinhold Jr., instructed Baratta before the lieutenant left headquarters for his ride-along with Steve Rouse, the show's Hawaiian-shirt-clad star. "Make sure it's interactive. As much fun as this is, it's a good chance to plug what we do."
For the most part, police played straight men for the radio station's comedy routines, entertaining listeners during the morning commute while demonstrating that even officers of the law can poke fun at themselves.
With Baratta at the wheel, Rouse and a Sun reporter hopped into a police cruiser to experience the rough-and-tumble world of Baltimore.
Rouse was intent on finding a prostitute, though 6: 30 a.m. was not exactly the best time to see scantily-dressed women striding around city streets. Rouse thought he found one, only to learn from Baratta that the woman sitting on the curb sold only coffee.
"I thought I saw a lady of the evening a few minutes ago," Rouse told listeners.
"She was a lady of the day," Baratta retorted on air, not missing a beat. "I think Steve needs to get out a bit more."
Rouse is far from a shock jock. He sells an easy mix of news, pop music oldies, games, parodies and commentary on life in Baltimore. He banters with his sidekicks, Tom Davis and Linda Sherman, and cracks sexually suggestive but tasteful jokes. Rouse did a lengthy bit yesterday prodding Sherman to date officers.
Rouse went out twice with Baratta on patrol, each time spending about 90 minutes on the street. He spent the rest of the show at a makeshift studio in the headquarters' lobby.
There, he handcuffed producer Maynard G. to a railing outside the building, left the keys on the sidewalk just out of reach and waited to see if anyone would help. During bookings of suspects, Rouse recommended offering them "two free wallet-size prints" of their mug shots.
The station played "Secret Agent Man" and "I Fought the Law," while Rouse cruised the city.
Police managed to put aside bureaucratic sound bites. At headquarters, Weinhold told of a report that a man had stolen money from a church collection plate and then died of a heart attack around the corner.
"Everyone in that squad went to church that Sunday," Weinhold said. Retired Sgt. Ed Hoppman gave the guests hand-molded chocolate handcuffs, and others at headquarters offered the ultimate in law enforcement pastry: doughnuts.
Said Weinhold, "We wanted them to experience the full ambience."