St. Patrick's Day violence exceeded initial reports, police dispatch tapes show

As an unseasonably warm St. Patrick's Day drew to a close in Baltimore, teens by the hundreds swarmed downtown, keeping one step ahead of police while battling from corner to corner, mostly with fists, sometimes with knives.

As authorities watched from a helicopter and on video from surveillance cameras, youths marched seemingly at will through the Inner Harbor and streets north and west, frequently clashing that Saturday night. Dozens of officers called in from across the city scrambled to keep up with the attacks, shutting key intersections and trying to push the youths away from the center of tourism.

"I need somebody to go to Pratt and Light [streets] for the male who was assaulted, Charles and Pratt for the assault, Pratt and Light again for the juveniles," a police dispatcher urgently called out in a single breath amid the melee. "I need somebody to go to Pratt and Light, a medic is trying to get through. Somebody has stomped a male in the crowd. The [ambulance] just passed a large group of kids assaulting the male with one child on the ground."

The full scope of the March 17 disturbance has not previously come to light. Recordings from more than three hours of dispatch tapes obtained by The Baltimore Sun through the state's Public Information Act reveal a far more violent landscape than police initially described — as well as several incidents, including a reported knifing at a Harborplace pavilion, that were not disclosed.

A police commander and the department's chief spokesman defended how the agency confronted the youths, making 10 arrests, saying that at no time did events spiral out of control.

"It's never the idea to make mass arrests," said Maj. Dennis Smith, commander of the Central District. "The idea is to ensure everybody's safety. If you find the aggressor, you go after him. ... We had over 500 people come from different sides of town. But they didn't take over."

That Monday, police confirmed at least one brawl, a stabbing on Water Street and said an officer had possibly subdued a youth with a Taser just north of the harbor. The 10 people arrested, all juveniles, were charged with disorderly conduct, assault and curfew violations.

But the tapes reveal other calls as well. Among them were a fight that left a man unconscious on Redwood Street, guests at the Hyatt Regency Hotel being harassed and frightened youngsters taking refuge inside a Days Inn to escape an angry mob.

Calls for help piled up as the crowd swelled. Also downtown were crowds from nightclubs and theaters, and other holiday celebrants. Witnesses said it appeared as if a sports stadium had suddenly emptied.

'They're everywhere'

"Let me know what you see in reference to the kids," the dispatcher asked the police officer in the helicopter, called Foxtrot. "They're everywhere," he answered.

Azhar Bhatti, a driver for Checker Cab, found himself in the middle of a mob scene, trapped at Baltimore and Light streets.

"There was a lot of people, fighting, arguing, cursing, fists flying," he said. "You didn't know who was fighting who. Police were there and they did their best, to be honest, but it looked like the number of police officers was not enough for that mob. It was scary."

Bhatti, a native of Pakistan who has been in America for 13 years and driven a taxi here for one, said youths kicked his cab's doors and pounded on the hood when he stopped at red lights.

At Baltimore and Light streets, he said, the road "was blocked and 35 to 40 people, young kids, were walking across. They're looking at you, staring at you. ... You're not going to get out and chase them."

Police were so busy that victims of petty crimes such as vandalism and thefts from cars were told to walk to the Central District station on East Baltimore Street to file a report. When an officer tried to break in for a driver's license check on a routine car stop, the exasperated dispatcher retorted, "Ma'am, you have got to be kidding."

"It seems to me that the police responded in an immediate fashion and prevented it from getting completely out of control," said City Councilman William H. Cole IV, whose district includes much of downtown. He noted that officers watching surveillance cameras "could almost predict trouble before it started."

Anthony Guglielmi, the department's chief spokesman, said the disturbance "was managed."

"We didn't have to announce a press conference to call in the National Guard," he said. "There were chaotic times, I'm not questioning that. But this speaks to the department's ability to be prepared to marshal resources and get them to where the hot spots are."

Baltimore police are still examining the St. Patrick's Day incidents, and their response, in preparation for another holiday — July Fourth — that will draw big crowds downtown. Last year, the Inner Harbor celebration was marred by the fatal stabbing of a tourist from Alabama and the separate shooting of a 4-year-old boy in the leg.

This year, authorities plan to ring the harbor with a fence with nine restricted access points, though metal detectors will not be used.

'We got a fight'

St. Patrick's Day was not a planned downtown event, and while police had beefed up patrols in bar districts, there was no indication that youths might suddenly inundate the Inner Harbor area.

Police have been unable to learn precisely what motivated the combatants but said community groups from the east and west sides, which have a historic rivalry, coincidently posted Facebook invitations to downtown.

By 8 p.m., officers were responding to a call for a serious stabbing on the outskirts of downtown, and reports of youths massing at Rash Field at the Inner Harbor were trickling in. An officer reported that the youths were "trying to form up and I'm about to move them out."

Within minutes, police were setting up a command center at City Hall and asking the Eastern District for help at the scene of the stabbing so Central District officers could help move the teens. A dispatcher requested that the intersection of Pratt and Light streets be closed to traffic to divert cars from downtown.

A dispatcher reported that an officer "is on the other side of the harbor making sure [the teens] don't penetrate us over there. They're trying to get around on the Light Street side." The dispatcher said, "I'm going to try to get as many units as I can," while noting that 11 callers to 911 had been put on hold.

A police commander asked whether officers monitoring video surveillance cameras could also monitor social media networks, saying, "Intelligence I'm getting on the ground is that it's being motivated by Facebook."

Moments later, according to the dispatch tapes, the frantic voice of an officer on the ground broke in: "Between Baltimore and Pratt streets, 200 to 400 kids stretched out in that area." A colleague shouted, "We got a fight, we got a fight, Light and Redwood. We got a fight in the street."

The helicopter observer radioed: "They're battling pretty good here."

In the minutes that followed, officers confronted crowds at Light and Conway, near the harbor, arrested two people fighting on Light Street a block away, and faced another altercation at Baltimore and Light streets. Just then, another fight broke out in front of the Noodles & Company restaurant on the Inner Harbor promenade.

The dispatcher called for four city buses to help remove the youths, "going north, going south, going east, going west."

Police tried to keep pace with the violent outbreaks, but just as they would push through the crowd to reach one fight, it would break up and start again a block or two away. For more than an hour officers appeared to be chasing large groups hopelessly around downtown.

Deputy Maj. Bernard Douglas, who was in charge of the Central District on St. Patrick's Day, got on the radio: "Are we focusing on primary aggressors, maybe take those guys off?"

An officer called for an ambulance for an unconscious victim. The dispatcher advised officers to stay together and stay safe. "Do not get separated," she told them. "Stay near your cars so you can get out of there in a hurry."

Reports poured in. One hundred youths walking west on Baltimore Street from Light. Another 200 heading east toward them from Charles Street.

Seconds later, another battle at Baltimore and Light was reported, and an officer used a Taser on one of the assailants. Police reported four arrests as another fight broke out at Light and Fayette, then another confrontation at Fayette and Charles.

"Pocket of 24 to 40 walking southbound and a pocket of 40 to 80 at Fayette," the helicopter officer said. Someone watching video surveillance shouted about a man with no shirt and jeans. "We need to get him, he was involved in the fight on Baltimore. We need to get him off the street. He's getting ready to fight again, at Redwood and Calvert."

Just then, another officer: "150 to 200 at Charles and Fayette. They're fighting right now."

The incidents piled up. A fight in front of the Gallery at Harborplace. A reported cutting inside the Pratt Street Pavilion at Tir na nOg restaurant. A girl stabbed another on Water Street, just south of The Block. Another fight at Baltimore and Light.

During the emergency, authorities worked quickly to shut streets as they tried for hours to ease the teens out of downtown.

"Do not approach," Douglas said at one point about a crowd on the move. "Let them walk and leave the area."

He advised officers in the helicopter, "Keep us abreast of where the crowds are. Pay particular attention to anybody who wants to have a disturbance. I'm not worried about them walking out of the downtown area. I just want to make sure we can deploy rapidly to these fights."

Revels and a Web assault

Even as police tried to calm downtown, officers elsewhere had their own problems. Drunken revelers were urinating on rowhouse steps in Federal Hill, and public drinking in Canton's O'Donnell Square got out of control.

After the downtown cleared, a violent attack on a Virginia tourist — who was punched unconscious, robbed and stripped naked outside the Calvert Street courthouse — went unreported and unnoticed. It wasn't until weeks later, when a video appeared on the Internet, that police were able to identify the victim and make four arrests.

But in the hours before midnight, sporadic altercations were reported. Douglas, the police commander, told officers helping from other districts that they would have to stay, and he warned them not to shirk as the end of the shift neared.

"If they need to be arrested, they need to be arrested," Douglas said.

As 11:30 p.m. approached, the beleaguered dispatcher put out a final plea: "How do I look? Can I go home?"

The helicopter officer gave her bad news: "Large crowd moving up Saratoga."

But no fights broke out.

"Tell me that's my last crowd," the dispatcher said.

One last group was headed down the escalator at the Charles Center Metro.

"They're trying to fight," an officer said.