The high school girls walked into the Fells Point bar Penny Black last weekend dressed in caps and gowns and, innocently enough, ordered just juice.
When staff caught sight of the tequila bottles under their graduation gowns, the girls took their party to the street.
“They spent the entire night, until 3 or 4 in the morning, getting so trashed,” said Melissa Doering, the bar owner.
The historic seaport neighborhood of Fells Point has always been a nightlife destination, but such blatant underage, public drinking would never have been allowed in years past, bar and restaurant owners say. They complain that the city’s permissive open-container policies have turned Fells Point into an all-night Spring Break party with rampant underage drinking, unpermitted DJs, sidewalk cocktail sales and, inevitably, violence.
City Councilman Zeke Cohen, who represents the neighborhood, called a meeting Thursday of about a dozen business owners to share what he said was a plan from the mayor’s office to help. Four police officers already assigned to the district would be positioned in the popular Broadway Square, around where street brawls and gunfire broke out last weekend. Eight additional officers — one from each of Baltimore’s other police districts — will be deployed to Fells Point along with one commander. Two more officers from the Southeast District will be paid overtime to help maintain order.
Further, Cohen said, about 10 sheriff’s deputies will be stationed in the neighborhood and 20 state troopers will conduct DUI checkpoints on streets in and out of Fells Point. “It is a very, very significant amount of law enforcement resources that will be in and around the square,” he told business owners.
“Fells is a welcoming place. We’re not going to become an island, we’re not going to secede from the rest of the city,” Cohen told the business owners. “Everybody who comes here has to be respectful.”
While he shared specific numbers of officers with the business owners, Cohen later said those numbers could change. Details of the plan were still being worked out, he added. The mayor’s office discussed the plan during a virtual town hall meeting at 7 p.m., although Mayor Brandon Scott did not participate.
Calvin Harris, Scott’s spokesman, spent much of Thursday afternoon questioning Cohen’s numbers and issued a statement declaring that “the figures Councilman Cohen shared with constituents do not accurately reflect the planned deployment for the Fells Point footprint.”
During the town hall meeting, however, the mayor’s staff repeated that nine additional officers would be redeployed to the Southeast District, and also said sheriff’s deputies and Maryland State Police would patrol the streets, though it didn’t specify how many.
At the mayor’s town hall meeting Thursday night, nearly 700 people attended virtually, flooding the comment section with questions.
Police Commissioner Michael Harrison said officers from the Southeastern District will be in Fells Point beginning around 3 p.m. to conduct foot patrol and business checks. Officers plan to remain in the neighborhood until the area clears out. While underage drinking and open containers are a concern, Harrison said, the emphasis will be on officers to watch for illegal weapons.
The commissioner said the department formed a paid partnership with the sheriff’s office to help patrol for at least four weeks.
In a phone call hours before the town hall, Scott pushed back against criticism that the predominantly wealthy and white neighborhood was receiving special treatment. He noted that police deployed additional officers to Carroll Park in Southwest Baltimore last month after parties there erupted with gunfire. And he called a town hall to hear concerns from Carroll Park families, he said.
“Any area of the city where we’re having issues, we build up and staff up. We’ve done it in West Baltimore; we’ve done it in East Baltimore,” he said. “We won’t pick one neighborhood over another.”
The safety plan for Fells Point comes after business owners and residents expressed growing frustration over the rowdy crowds that have descended on the square after dark. Instagram posts advertise unsanctioned block parties with DJs, free admission and BYOB.
People arrive with coolers of homemade cocktails and car trunks full of alcohol. One woman posted as an advertisement a photo of pink and green bottles. “Been in here making drinks all day.” (Reached by phone, she declined to answer questions.)
On social media, scenes of the party circulate widely. Photos captured young people striking a pose while standing on the hood of a police car. Videos captured fistfights in the streets. In one, a woman goes after a young man, grabbing him; another young man comes behind her and body-slams her onto the bricks laid in the square, leaving her motionless.
With the situation escalating on weekends, some restaurants stopped selling alcohol to go. Other owners said they resorted to closing early and walking customers to their cars.
Then early Sunday, gunfire rang out — just 25 feet from a police officer, the mayor said. The crowd scattered; three men were shot. By Tuesday, about three dozen business owners sent the mayor, state’s attorney and police commissioner a letter threatening to withhold taxes if city leaders don’t take action. They accused elected officials of turning a blind eye to their concerns and permitting “a culture of lawlessness.”
Public debate ensued along the familiar fault lines of race, class and wealth. One day later, some residents were circulating an online petition calling for a boycott of the businesses that signed the letter, accusing the owners of demanding more police at the expense of Baltimore neighborhoods that suffer neglect and worse violence. Their petition has collected at least 140 signatures.
State Del. Robbyn Lewis, who represents Southeast Baltimore, attended Thursday’s meeting with the business owners and acknowledged the challenge they all face. The city continues to suffer from a shortage of police officers. Lewis had asked the commissioner how the department will handle sending more cops to Fells Point.
She said he told her it will pay for officer overtime elsewhere to cover the redeployment.
“He literally said it’s a zero-sum game,” Lewis said.
Still, the business owners said the city could save money if it stops paying public works drivers to shut down streets around Fells Point late into the night. The perimeter of road closures was intended to reduce and control crowds. Instead, it’s exacerbated the problem, said Sean Brescia of The Wharf Rat pub.
“That perimeter is creating a Fells Point Festival assumption,” he told Cohen. “Everything in the perimeter is a party zone.”
Further complicating the issue is the coronavirus order from Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan that permitted bars and restaurants to sell closed cups of alcohol and beer to go. Ginny Lawhorn, owner of the Friends and Family bar and restaurant, for one, said she has stopped to-go sales of alcohol so as not to contribute to the problem.
Cohen acknowledged the difficulty police face in trying to contain brazen underage drinking. A police officer may confront a drunk and rowdy teen and ask him or her to pour it out. The officer may issue a written citation. Then what?
“If the person throws the citation on the ground, it’s a tough situation,” Cohen said. “If they make an arrest, it will take the officer out of the square. It can exacerbate tension in the crowd.”
Furthermore, Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby has announced she will no longer prosecute people for open containers of alcohol.
Officers have been instructed by police commanders to tighten up enforcement, Cohen said. They will no longer allow DJs to perform in the square without a permit. They won’t allow people to sell alcohol on the sidewalks. City officials plan to increase trash pickups to four times a day.
Fells Point has long contended with rowdy bar crowds, underage drinking and people urinating in the streets. (Mosby also said she will not prosecute public urination.) The business owners say these old problems are worse than ever.
“One guy walked up and down the length of my building peeing, just to cover as much real estate as possible,” said Doering, of Penny Black.
The dozen business owners and representatives, however, said they are committed to keeping Fells Point a welcome place for all Baltimore.
They plan to meet again and discuss how to fill the streets with events for a diverse crowd: maybe arts exhibits, musicians, perhaps the Morgan State University marching band. They want to see the tall ship Pride of Baltimore docked in their neighborhood. They want jobs and events for Baltimore’s youth.
“We cannot continue to be perceived as an island,” Cohen said.
Darin Mislan of The Admiral’s Cup said he’s already seen progress to that end. Families are coming to Fells Point from across the city and beyond on weekends.
“The diversity is better than it ever has been — it’s fantastic,” he said. “It’s just [a problem] midnight to 5 a.m.”