For people who live in Baltimore, from the durable communities of Federal Hill to the struggling areas of Park Heights, nothing is more important than the neighborhood beat cop.
But after years of carving up the city's police patrol areas along residential boundaries, the department has begun quietly changing how residents and their properties are protected.
Viewed on a map, the new strategy looks sweeping. Federal Hill now shares an officer with Otterbein and South Baltimore. Sandtown-Winchester and Harlem Park are considered one. Reservoir Hill is combined with Druid Heights. Waverly and Harwood are joined.
The square blocks that a police officer must patrol have expanded in 27 communities across the city.
Although it appears officer strength is being diluted, department officials say that more strategic patrols will offer residents better protection.
Police say their boundaries have not changed much since the mid-1960s and have not kept up with shifting crime and residence patterns.
"Everybody is still going to get excellent service, if not better," said Maj. Steven McMahon, the commander of the Central District, which includes the downtown business and tourist areas and the drug markets along Pennsylvania Avenue.
How patrol areas are drawn can be as important, and political, as remapping voting districts. An officer should be on every corner, the old saying goes, but no matter how many officers are out, it never seems to be enough.
In Sandtown-Winchester, the city's showplace for urban renewal, crime took center stage at last week's celebration of 36 refurbished rowhouses on North Calhoun Street, in an area known more for blight than for pristine living.
"Public safety is our cornerstone," said Emmanuel Price, one of the project's leaders, who knows that people won't move to an unsafe neighborhood, no matter now nice the homes look. "It is No. 1 on our list."
The police officer who used to be assigned to Sandtown-Winchester is now part of a group responsible for that community and another. Where there used to be three patrol areas, three officers and three cars, there is now one patrol area, four officers and two cars.
Price isn't as concerned about how many cars as he is about what officers do. "We want to see officers get out of their cars," he said, echoing the sentiments of residents across the city. People who live on streets besieged by drug dealers and avenues lined with historic rowhouses want an officer they can call their own.
"They get to know you and the issues," said Dick Leitch, president of the Federal Hill Community Association, where an officer walks a beat and gives his pager number to residents. "He knows who the jerks and who the solid citizens are."
Leitch said he has not noticed any changes in the way police patrol, even though the new strategies began two weeks ago when the department flooded the drug- and homicide-riddled Eastern District with 120 extra officers.
"Any time we've needed a police response, it's been quick," he said, adding that he expects changes with a new police administration charged with quickly lowering crime. "Obviously, the way we had been doing things wasn't working."
The trick for police is to shift officers without causing problems in a stable community.
"You can't fault them for putting policemen in high-crime areas," said Sonny Morstein, president of the South Baltimore/Federal Hill Business Association. "But you certainly don't want to create a problem by moving an officer. It's a difficult balancing act."
Sheldon F. Greenberg, director of the Police Executive Leadership Program at the Johns Hopkins University, said that while visible police deployment is important for residents, it does not always lead to crime prevention.
"Some experts have shown that you don't prevent crime through random patrol as much as you delay crime," he said. "If young thugs are considering smashing a car and taking a camera, and they see a patrol officer, they aren't going to decide not to do the crime. They are going to go around the corner and wait."
But perception can be everything. One casualty of the enhanced Eastern District effort was Pigtown's mobile police van, a large recreational vehicle decorated like a cruiser, which community leaders call one of their most important drug fighting weapons.
"We used it all over the place," said Kimberly D. Lane, executive director of the Washington Village Pigtown Neighborhood Planning Council. "It created a huge presence. It will shut down your toughest drug corner."
Top police officials said they will keep a close eye on the new deployment. In some cases, while there are more officers in certain areas, they are in fewer cars. That could mean increased response time to emergency calls.
"If it doesn't work, we'll do something else," said Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris, adding that the way officers had been deployed "was not an effective way of doing business."
He said 911 calls are increasing in areas where the most officers are assigned, such as the Eastern District.
"The radio was jumping off the hook," the commissioner said of a recent tour. "People were calling about drug sales on every corner."
To help staff the small army sent to the Eastern, every district commander had to give up eight officers. Some came from patrol; others from roving teams, which had time to investigate pockets of violence, drug activity or other problems that patrol didn't have time to handle.
Police officials said that by shifting officers to where they are most needed, they are able to help every neighborhood.
In the Northwestern District, Maj. John McEntee said he boosted protection for Park Heights and Pimlico, where drugs and shootings are prevalent, and has kept police in quieter communities for longer periods of time.
Under the old plan, the most dangerous part of the Park Heights corridor had eight officers in eight cars. Whenever they were in need of help, the closest officer was summoned from Fallstaff, a stable, more affluent community north of Northern Parkway. As a result, that officer was in his assigned area for only half his shift.
Now there are 11 officers in six cars in the communities along Park Heights Avenue. The officer in Fallstaff rarely has to leave.
"I don't think the community is going to see fewer police," McEntee said. "The same number of police are out, we're just trying to assign them at better times."
But at a community meeting last week of South Baltimore and Federal Hill residents, many residents said they needed more.
Southern District Sgt. Robin W. Thacker listened to angry residents who said that their children have to walk by drug pushers on their way to and from school, and that they believed their community was paying for the extra deployment to the city's east side.
"It's not right," said Deborah Boyd, who lives in the 1700 block of Clarkson St. and has two young children. "We got to worry about our kids walking to school. I don't even feel safe walking them there myself."
Sun staff writer Allison Klein contributed to this article.