Southeast on edge over crime as neighbors call for measured debate

Baltimore City Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, left, and Police Commissioner Anthony Batts answer questions from residents during a community meeting on crime in the Southeastern District where about 500 people attended.
Baltimore City Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, left, and Police Commissioner Anthony Batts answer questions from residents during a community meeting on crime in the Southeastern District where about 500 people attended. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun)

The topic of crime has become so contentious in Southeast Baltimore that Sarah Fox removed herself from her community's Facebook page because she couldn't take the arguing.

Fox feels safe in her home along Patterson Park, but her neighbors have been shaken by a spike in area violence. The robbery at gunpoint of a 12-year-old walking to school, the daytime rape of a woman in an alleyway and the killing of a woman in her home have put many on edge in this relatively well-to-do area that contains some of the city's fastest-growing neighborhoods.


Crime can be a concern in any neighborhood, but this year the issue has taken on new urgency in neighborhoods like Canton and Highlandtown. Many are calling on the city to shift law enforcement resources into the area, but others say that perspective minimizes the plight of poorer parts of the city that have struggled with violence for years.

Hundreds of residents packed a forum Wednesday night on Southeast Baltimore violence, with Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts, City Council members and state lawmakers in attendance. The event was organized by Del. Luke Clippinger, who said the area's problems reflect broader issues in a city with a climbing homicide rate.


Batts walked into the throng of residents and said he was "embarrassed" they had to have the meeting. "The city deserves more," he said. "Some of the things that are taking place in this community should not be happening."

Clippinger said he has been monitoring the increasingly heated discourse in the city. A series of popular blog posts have stoked wide-ranging arguments about race, income inequality and public safety — issues that he said "can divide the community."

Rawlings-Blake has called on residents to offer solutions in the debate over crime, and in response to one blog post voicing a litany of frustrations, pointed out that no area of town is entitled to more resources than another.

The mayor disputed the notion that "when crime happens in an area where the income taxes and property taxes are higher, we're supposed to care more."

"I am focused … on action and finding partners who are doing more than complain, that are willing to do more than write a check for their property tax," Rawlings-Blake said.

But some residents said they have had enough of crime in the city. Brian March, who lives about two blocks from where a man was robbed and beaten with a brick last month in Canton, said it doesn't seem as if law enforcement cares enough.

"I've already considered moving. Crime's been bad for a while," March said. "I haven't seen a cop walk through my area in 13 years."

The discourse so far has done little to advance the debate over crime and other problems, said Munir Bahar, a chief organizer of Baltimore's 300 Men March events against violence.

He said he wishes people would do less blogging and more volunteering of their time and resources to prevent "future children from becoming killers."

"People divided. People blaming each other, being emotional. That's what's going on," Bahar said. "The crime and violence are so overwhelming that the response has been irrational. … People are speaking out of fear and feeling so helpless that it does destroy the morale of the whole group."

Earlier this week, in the basement of a church overlooking Patterson Park, residents packed into a meeting with the acting commander of the area's police district. Many of them first-time attendees, the participants stood up to speak about being targeted for break-ins multiple times, and seeing youths knock on doors looking for an empty home.

They also spoke of concern that the pitched discussion was causing community divisions in an area that is home to a mix of young professionals, immigrants and lower-income families.


What had been a topic of discussion on front steps and taverns became a viral war of words after Tracey Halvorsen, a Web-design company owner who lives in Butchers Hill, decided to express her frustrations in a blog post titled, "Baltimore City, You're Breaking My Heart."

In the article, she divulged a feeling of apprehension around teenagers and said she had avoided Patterson Park out of fear. The post on medium.com has garnered more than 350,000 views.

Other residents soon responded with posts of their own — including "Whose Heart is Baltimore Breaking, Really? — that pointed out more severe challenges in confronting violent crime in other parts of the city and argued that economic disparities are responsible.

The executive director of Live Baltimore, an organization that promotes city living to draw new residents and increase the tax base, lamented the tenor of the conversation in a post of his own.

"Before we strike out on the Internet, to what extent are we pondering: What am I trying to achieve? What will the consequences of my statements be? At what point will the civic discourse I create become destructive?" wrote Live Baltimore's Steven Gondol, who lives in Southeast Baltimore.

Halvorsen said she never thought her blog post would touch such a nerve. In hindsight, she said, she would have made it more inclusive by addressing fears of residents outside her neighborhood. But she insisted everyone has a right to voice their opinion over policing, safety and city leadership.

"Anyone who sees a spike in crime in their neighborhood should be able to speak up. If I'm not qualified to speak up about issues of crime in my neighborhood, then please tell me who is," she said.

She also took umbrage at Rawlings-Blake's comments, saying the mayor's response served to deflect residents' legitimate crime concerns by making them feel guilty for speaking up. She said she and scores of others on Facebook community groups were "horrified" at the mayor's response.

"It was very disheartening and discouraging," Halvorsen said.

Police statistics released last week showed that it's not just Halvorsen's perception that crime is up. While reported robberies are down 21 percent citywide compared to the same time last year, they are up 28 percent in Southeastern Baltimore. Street robberies are up 55 percent, with gun-related incidents tripling.

Batts has said police are responding to concerns by launching undercover initiatives in Southeast Baltimore and monitoring the routes children take to school and back.

Clippinger, a Democrat, scheduled the Wednesday night meeting at the Breath of God Lutheran Church in Highlandtown after he received several calls and emails about the killing of Kimberly Leto, 51, a popular bartender fatally stabbed Jan. 31 in her home, apparently during a burglary. Two teenagers have been charged in her death.

Clippinger said he hopes the recent debate has helped residents see that crime is an issue for the entire city, not for just one neighborhood. It's a challenge the city needs to be unified to tackle, he said. But he also wants to manage expectations.


"There's no way we can solve all the issues of violent crime in Baltimore in one meeting," he said.


Rawlings-Blake said at the forum: "My desperate hope is that we use this time to come together."

Baltimore Sun reporters Justin Fenton, Yvonne Wenger and Colin Campbell contributed to this article.


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