City preps for safe July 4 amid federal warning, increased violence

The Baltimore Sun
Baltimore police will be out in force for annual Fourth of July Celebration downtown.

Baltimore police — in uniform and plainclothes — will be out in force for Saturday's holiday celebrations that come amid federal warnings about potential terrorist threats and increased violence in the city since the death of Freddie Gray.

The city will host its annual Fourth of July Celebration at the Inner Harbor, the largest such event in the Baltimore region, which has drawn about 200,000 people in each of the past few years. Also Saturday, about 5,000 are expected to attend the Monumental Bicentennial event to celebrate the reopening of the Washington Monument in Mount Vernon.

They will be the city's first large-scale events downtown since the April 19 death of Gray, which touched off protests and riots and was followed by a surge in homicides and shootings. The city has recorded 144 homicides in the first half of the year, with more than half coming in the past two months.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said the city is ramping up security. She said she's aware of the federal call for heightened awareness but that she has not received specific information about threats to Baltimore.

"As with all significant events in the city, I have ordered that we operate a unified command with representatives from public safety agencies and other partners where we will coordinate event management and the response to any hazards or security issues," she said in a statement

The FBI and Department of Homeland Security have advised law enforcement officers nationwide to exercise increased caution because of recent extremist activity, said Brian Nadeau, FBI assistant special agent in charge of national security.

Nadeau said the FBI has "no specific credible intelligence to indicate any threat" against July Fourth celebrations and that the bulletin was a call for increased vigilance.

Baltimore Police Capt. Eric Kowalczyk said the department will have an increased presence this weekend beyond the "standard deployment."

Officers will be visible in marked patrol cars, on horseback, motorcycles, bicycles and on foot, police said in a statement. The department will also use technological resources, such as the city's network of CitiWatch cameras, to patrol the city.

The department will also ramp up its DUI enforcement and additional "traffic initiatives," the statement said.

Officials are also asking that anyone attending fireworks not bring a bag, or to use a clear one.

Police declined to detail the number of officers who will be working at the events, citing department procedure.

"We'll have a lot of personnel that will be in the" Inner Harbor, he said. "We use a lot of plainclothes units that will be in the surrounding areas to make sure that people coming in and leaving are also safe."

Kowalczyk also declined to comment on the department's response to the federal terrorism bulletin but said: "We take every threat seriously.

"We want to make sure the public is assured that when we deploy appropriate resources, we're able to keep people safe," he said.

Last week, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh C. Johnson issued a statementcalling recent terrorist attacks in France, Kuwait and Tunisia "a reminder of the evolving global terrorist threats." He said federal agencies and local law enforcement would work together to ensure July Fourth safety.

"We are encouraging all law enforcement to be vigilant and prepared. We will also adjust security measures, seen and unseen, as necessary to protect the American people," he said.

Nadeau said revelers should be on the lookout for anything out of the ordinary.

"If it's 85 degrees on a Saturday and somebody is walking around with a heavy coat, that might be unusual," he said. "If you see a vehicle parked in an unusual area for a period of time and nobody's around it, if that seems unusual to you in your environment and you hadn't noticed it before, that could be something you report."

It's unclear what effect the federal warning and recent uptick in city violence might have on attendance for the downtown celebrations.

Already, heightened tensions in the city have taken a toll on local attractions, such as the Maryland Science Center, which saw attendance drop by about 70 percent in the week after the rioting.

"It's hard to say what it'll be like for the Fourth of July," said Tom Noonan, president and CEO of Visit Baltimore.

He noted that the Preakness drew a record crowd to Pimlico Race Course in Northwest Baltimore in May. But he said the city still is adjusting to a "new normal" as it recovers from the unrest and millions of dollars in damages to businesses from rioting and looting on the day of Gray's funeral. Gray died a week after suffering spinal cord injury and other injuries while in police custody.

"We saw great numbers at the Preakness, and hotels are doing better than I thought. All signs are pointing to recovery, so we may have a very normal-sized crowd, but it's all guesswork this summer," Noonan said.

State Comptroller Peter Franchot toured downtown businesses Thursday in an effort to promote the city before this weekend's festivities. He acknowledged the negative effect the riots and violence have had.

"No doubt the riots and ensuing crime wave have hurt the economy," Franchot said. "I can't make that go away. I hope everybody comes back, but that's a process and I'm a realist when I saw a lot of damage has been done to the reputation of the city. But is it still a diverse, vibrant wonderful place? Yes."

City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young said people should feel comfortable traveling to the city this weekend.

"We are all working around the clock to ensure that the festivities are safe and enjoyable for the scores of people who plan to visit Baltimore over the long holiday weekend," he said in a statement. "I expect an influx of visitors, in addition to the many residents who will be out enjoying the holiday."

Cathy Rosenbaum, organizer of the Monumental Bicentennial event, expects the same.

"We're really hoping that things will go smoothly, and we expect that they will," she said.

Several vendors who work in the Inner Harbor area said they are optimistic that authorities will keep the Fourth of July event safe.

"They take extra precautions every year," said Sandy Fleming, 33, an assistant regional manager at Color Inc. in Harborplace. "I've never felt unsafe. I think they do a really good job."

Ty Owens, 40, who manages an Uno Pizzeria and Grill overlooking the harbor, said there are so many people at the fireworks event every year that "you can't see the brick" on the sidewalk. He said he expects the same this year.

"Even though they put those warnings out, I think it's one of the safer places to be," he said. "It's just an awareness thing."

Baltimore Sun reporter Talia Richman contributed to this article.

cjedra@baltsun.com

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