For decades, veteran police officers viewed Baltimore's Northeast Police District, dominated by middle-class, low-crime neighborhoods, as a "country club" assignment.
But a rise in crime in some neighborhoods is changing that sentiment. Shootings and violence have been on the rise in the district — the city's largest, spanning 17 square miles including Lauraville, Ednor Gardens and Belair Edison — and it leads the city in homicides this year. The Police Department recently designated two neighborhoods in the area as "violent crime enforcement zones," putting them on a par with some of the most troubled spots in the city.
At a town hall meeting last week, resident Maraizu Onyenaka pleaded with Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to stop the drug traffic on her block.
"I live on a corner that is an open-air drug market," said Onyenaka. "We know where they are. Everyone knows where they are. So why are they still there?"
Despite the spike in crime, the district largely remains a safe, middle-class enclave. And the violent crime around Clifton Park, an area long troubled by drug dealing, did not spring up overnight. Nevertheless, Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who represents the area of the district where most of the violence has occurred, said, "We all have a lot of work to do in the Northeast District. That's for certain."
Since last month, a squad of 15 officers from the Violent Crimes Impact Section has been patrolling the Coldstream-Homestead-Montebello and Belair Edison communities. That's on top of more than 20 foot patrol deployments throughout the district, which police and city officials hope will stem the 21 percent rise in total crime.
Officers have raided drug houses and seized loaded illegal handguns, and the department served outstanding warrants on 50 people with histories of violence in the area. But the shootings continue. On April 22, a man was fatally shot several times in Coldstream-Homestead-Montebello, a day after a man was shot in the chest while sitting on a porch in Belair Edison. Both shootings occurred in broad daylight.
It's not just violence that's on the rise. Across the district, property crime has soared 23 percent, including a 50 percent increase in burglaries. Internal turmoil has rocked the police district, with a command shake-up and more than a dozen officers suspended or charged by federal prosecutors in a towing scandal in February, in which officers were accused of taking kickbacks.
Through a spokesman, Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III did not respond to interview requests.
The Coldstream-Homestead-Montebello neighborhood's challenges have been building. Nestled between the redeveloped former Memorial Stadium site and Clifton Park, it's home to Baltimore's venerable City College high school, which draws students from across the city and counts among its notable alumni U.S. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, Reps. Elijah E. Cummings and C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, composer Philip Glass, developer David Cordish and Atlanta Braves team president John Schuerholz.
The neighborhood was also where then-Councilman Martin O'Malley announced his candidacy for mayor in 1999, pledging to rid the city of open-air drug corners.
Mark Washington, executive director of the Coldstream-Homestead-Montebello Association, said he's lived in the neighborhood his whole life and that the challenges that exist today aren't new. Despite his frustrations with police and city officials, he said, he believes things are moving in the right direction.
"We have a strong core of residents that are committed to changing this community for the better, and that gives me great optimism," he said.
Long-term change requires combating a rising number of vacant, blighted properties, he says. Preliminary census data released this year shows the neighborhood had a population decline of 16 percent between 2000 and 2010, with vacancies rising.
Clarke, the councilwoman, notes that it was among seven city neighborhoods to receive help to fight foreclosures and acquire and rehabilitate vacant homes. It has also received funding for an after-school program and for senior citizens, and a streetscape project along Harford Road is under way. Clarke and Washington both say they're hopeful that a long-awaited redevelopment project on troubled Tivoly Avenue — stripped out of the mayor's budget last year — will eventually move forward.
In response to residents' concerns about drugs at last week's town hall meeting, Rawlings-Blake cited her years of experience as a public defender and said the city needs more treatment programs for drug addicts. She pointed to a volunteer initiative that trains ex-addicts to help drug users seek treatment.
But Onyenaka, who moved to Baltimore from New Jersey for graduate school a few years ago, was not satisfied. Her corner, she said, is a "drive-by" drug market and attracts residents from outside the city. Community leaders were able to persuade the city to briefly close a corner store that was a magnet for drug dealing, but the store drew more drug activity when it reopened under new owners, she said.
Homeowner David Seaberry, 49, said the community's problems start at home. The father of three young children works as a contract carpenter, and at his rowhouse on the end of a block on The Alameda, he built a second-story deck, which proudly displays an American flag. He regularly counsels people in the neighborhood, young and old.
"We have a family problem [in the city]," Seaberry said. "A lot of these kids are smart, and they just want someone to give them the time. You never see a parent walking with any of these kids out here."
Neighbors say Seaberry has been known to line up youngsters on the grassy patch alongside his house and talk to them about setting goals and respecting their community, such as the consequences of breaking glass bottles in the street.
"I always come off like the bad guy," he says, grabbing a handful of garbage from the street, "but I just want to make sure I say the right things to them."
Around the corner, two young men sit on front steps holding binoculars and peering down the street. They say police are overaggressive, and complain that law enforcement isn't the way to solve what ails the community. "It's dangerous out here," one of them says. "Police be harassing you, locking you up for nothing."
The crime, they say, hasn't reached a level that requires a new deployment of officers. "A couple murders happen here and there, but it ain't nothing too serious. It's Baltimore City — people gonna die," says the man.
Statistics show that in 1991, the height of the crack cocaine epidemic, East Baltimore saw 72 homicides, while the Northeastern area recorded 17.
In 2009, with Baltimore at a two-decade low in homicides, the body count in the two areas drew closer — 38 people were killed in East Baltimore, while the Northeastern had 40 homicides, leading the city.
Meanwhile, residents in the quieter neighborhoods have long complained that officers are spread too thin to respond to their calls. The Northeast is about three times as large as the Eastern or Western districts, but it has the same number of officers. Officers assigned to patrol the district's No. 424 post, which covers the quiet Hamilton Hills neighborhood, had the second-most calls for service last year, according to city data.
Council members, most vocally Robert W. Curran, and community leaders have repeatedly asked past city administrations to redraw the police district boundaries to spread the workload. Though former Mayor Sheila Dixon called redistricting a "top priority," city officials say changes are unlikely without funding for additional officers.
The crime wave is also playing out amid internal turmoil: The district was without a commander for three months, during which time it was the hardest hit by February's towing scandal, losing more than a dozen officers to suspensions and federal charges in a kickback scheme.
"The Northeast District is confronted with some very unique challenges, and unfortunately we're [also] dealing with some pretty significant crime problems," Maj. Jodie McFadden, who was overseeing the district, told residents at a community meeting in April.
Tensions boiled over at the meeting.
The district's longtime major retired in January, and his deputy had to take time off to tend to family health problems. That left McFadden, assigned to juvenile booking, to keep watch.
McFadden told residents that the Frankford community, west of Cedonia, was his biggest priority after three people were killed in apparently unrelated incidents in late March and early April. Two of the fatal shootings occurred near shopping centers in the daytime. An unattended Baltimore police mobile command trailer sits in the parking lot of one of those shopping centers.
But residents complained that they have other issues in their neighborhoods that police aren't addressing, and said that neighborhood services officers — who help troubleshoot community concerns — had been unresponsive.
Sgt. Christopher Tserkis listened calmly with his arms folded. He asked when the residents were calling; they said during the day.
"I'm going to give it to you straight, because that's how I am," Tserkis said.
He explained that his unit, which normally would work during the day, has been deployed to walk foot patrols from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. while still being expected to respond to residents' concerns when they can find the time. Tserkis said he's staying on top of emails.
"That's just the way it is now, until we get things straightened out in the Northeast," he said.
McFadden quickly interjected.
"I really do apologize for us not being available to you," he said, giving the residents his cellphone number and telling them to call anytime.
As the meeting concluded, McFadden left residents with a bit of good news. Though robberies and burglaries are up for the year, there's been a downward trend over the past month. The foot patrols appear to be having an impact, he said.
"We're gonna take that," McFadden said.