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Taking steps to curb crime


More than three decades ago, when police Lt. John Bailey was just breaking into the force, his first assignment was to patrol Belair Road in Northeast Baltimore.

He did it on foot.

"That's how we got around then," Bailey said. "It was nice then because you knew everybody that worked around there."

In an effort to crack down on drug dealing and other crime in some of the city's most violent neighborhoods, Baltimore police have returned to the good old-fashioned foot patrol, if just for a few hours Friday nights, typically the busiest time of the week for criminal activity.

This weekend, about 60 additional officers, most pulled from desk jobs, took to the streets in the Central, Eastern and Western districts. It was the fourth so-called "all-out" since mid-March, and the practice will continue Fridays through July. Thirty other officers have been reassigned from administrative positions to daily patrol as well.

Police say the extra presence has been successful. Violent crime this year was up 13 percent through March compared with the same time a year ago, but police said that it has since dropped to pull nearly even with the first half of 2005.

This is the third campaign in the past eight years that has seen police officials flood the streets with officers pulled from administrative tasks. Past efforts, in 1998 and 2000, focused on the crime-riddled east side and were done toward the end of each year to try to limit the number of homicides. This latest initiative focuses on the entire city - covering three districts each week.

"The last three Fridays that we've had them out, we've seen a huge decrease in crime on Fridays," said Col. Deborah A. Owens, the chief of patrol. "I think it's been a great tool. They didn't necessarily like it at first, but they've got used to being back on the streets."

The added officers come at a time when the department is short-staffed. In April, police representatives said at a City Council hearing that each of the districts was facing shortages as high as 18 percent. With fewer officers, Owens said, the department is trying to come up with a creative way to show police presence in the community.

"If people don't see cops, then they think it's safe to commit crimes," Owens said. "I think the visibility does cause people to take a second thought about committing a crime."

On Friday, officers paced along a one-mile stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue west of downtown, keeping large groups from assembling in front of housing complexes and forbidding loitering in front of liquor stores.

A few officers mingled with residents, some of whom seemed to appreciate the added presence. But some people made loud, disparaging comments and only grudgingly left after they were told to move on.

Bailey, the 33-year veteran, shrugs off the dissenters. He spent much of his shift riding in his police cruiser making sure the foot officers were doing their jobs. He pitched in keeping the corners clear.

"There are groups of people who love to see us here and groups of people that don't," Bailey said as the sun began to set. "Just last week, a gentleman screamed at me, 'Why are you fencing us in like animals?' I tried to explain to him we're trying to clean this area up."

But Friday's "all-out" ended prematurely. Shortly after nightfall, a power outage knocked out lights along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard near Preston Street, causing traffic tie-ups.

Bailey, worried about accidents, moved all the foot-patrol officers to traffic duty. Instead of keeping corners clear, they stood at intersections and directed traffic. Bailey had to come up with a new plan to get officers to the right intersections to keep motorists moving in the dark.

"This has us all messed up," the lieutenant said. "You can't do any police work when you're doing this."

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