The Baltimore Police Department forced a West Baltimore gas station to close this week with a controversial city law — not used in years — that allows the "padlocking" of businesses deemed complicit in crime.
The BP gas station in the 2000 block of N. Forest Park Ave. has been the site of "pervasive illegal activity" that was "condoned by the management" for years, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said Tuesday at a joint news conference with police.
Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said a slew of crimes have occurred at or near the location — in the city's Franklintown neighborhood, not far from the Baltimore County line — in the last three years, including two homicides and multiple shootings and robberies.
Police also showed surveillance video of a clerk hiding a handgun for a man openly dealing drugs inside the shop as police arrived there one day in January. The clerk and several other men were arrested during that incident, which helped spur the closure, police said.
"The lives of patrons and citizens have been placed in danger due to criminal incidents, which were condoned by the management of this gas station," Rawlings-Blake said. "They're unacceptable to me, to the police commissioner and to the surrounding community. Padlocking this location shall serve as a lesson that businesses cannot be complicit with crime. It will not be tolerated."
The city shut down the gas station using its "public nuisance" statute, which allows it to close a business for up to a year.
The "padlock order," dated June 9, is addressed to the gas station's management company, Forest Park BP, and its resident agent, Maninder Singh. Stuart Schwager, an attorney for both, said they "emphatically and categorically deny" that they "in any way condoned or were in any way complicit" in criminal activity at or near the station.
Singh, an immigrant from India, was operating around the clock "in a difficult business environment" and "worked tirelessly to address the concerns of the community," Schwager said. No one in ownership or management has been arrested or charged with a crime, and the employee in the video has been terminated, he said.
A challenge to the closure has been filed in Circuit Court, after the operators failed to stop the closure through a hearing process, Schwager said.
Rawlings-Blake did not mention the challenge, but said the city is working with the property's owner, Carroll Independent Fuel, to "restore integrity" to the business.
That company issued a statement confirming that it is working with police and community groups to "curb crime" in the area. It said it entered into an agreement with the city in March to hire off-duty police officers as security, and is "confident that the community surrounding [the station] will be a safer place."
The Rev. Andrew Foster Connors, co-chair of Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, or BUILD, called the padlocking of the gas station a "small but important win" and praised Davis for working with local community groups to "take back our streets and to build one Baltimore."
"The Baltimore City Police Department, local businesses and citizens citywide took action together to close down a notorious drug corner that has plagued our community for generations," he said.
The gas station was shuttered on Tuesday, surrounded by fencing and with its gas pumps boarded up.
Dave Eberhart, 75, owns the building next to the gas station — which contains a Subway restaurant, a check-cashing store and a vacant retail space. He owned the gas station, too, until 2013, when he sold to Carroll Independent, he said.
Eberhart said that he and his brother inherited the building and gas station from their parents in 1984 and that his family has owned the property for more than a century. He said the criminal activity at the station was obvious, and the current operators did nothing to deter it.
"Drug dealing, that's what it was," Eberhart said. "People in the neighborhood were scared to come in the station."
Mohan Paudel, 30, who works at the Subway restaurant in Eberhart's building, said the alleged drug dealers who operated out of the gas station often hung out in the Subway as well, and intimidated him, his co-workers and his customers.
"I'm scared to work here," he said.
James Kortken, 58, who works at the check-cashing business, acknowledged crime at the gas station but questioned the targeting of the station operators.
"I don't think it's fair," he said. "It's happening all over the city. What, are you going to shut them all down? In the whole city? Some are worse than others, but it's basically the same thing."
Davis said police are "working very, very closely with Carroll Fuel to get this thing up and running again in a legitimate way."
Padlocking a business is a last resort after other attempts to improve or reform a problematic business have failed, police said, but officials did not outline what efforts were taken to address crime at the gas station prior to the closure Monday.
The closure tactic has not been used since about 2010. It used to be more routine — if controversial. Under the tenure of former Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III, the Baltimore police used the padlocking law to shutter bars, clubs and liquor stores.
Bealefeld first padlocked Linden Bar & Liquors in Reservoir Hill in 2008 and went on to shutter various other trouble spots. Some businesses — a bar, a carryout, a downtown nightclub and a motel — avoided getting padlocked by agreeing to security plans with police.
The owner of the Linden Bar challenged the padlocking of his business in court, arguing the law gave police too much power to punish business owners based on allegations, not convictions. The state appellate court never ruled on the challenge before the padlock order expired.
Under the statute, a business can be deemed a "public nuisance" if it is used for crime — or if police report it being used for crime — on two separate occasions within a two-year period. Once a business is designated a nuisance, the commissioner can order its closure "without proof that an owner, operator, or tenant knew of the existence of the public nuisance," according to the statute.
Rawlings-Blake said she "can't speak to" why the padlocking tactic has not been used in more than half a decade but supports it "when used correctly" and with the community's support.
Davis, appointed commissioner a year ago, said it is the department's responsibility "to be aware of the tools that are available" and to use them when appropriate.
"When you have gun-toting drug dealers who take over this gas station as if it's their sovereign piece of property, it's our responsibility to take action, and that's what we're doing," he said.
He declined to say whether the Police Department has a list of other problematic businesses but suggested that the gas station closure could have a chilling effect on business complicity in crime.
"We're confident that if there are any businesses that are up to no good, that are complicit in criminal activity, that they'll perhaps look at this moment and pause and say, 'You know what? Maybe it's time for us to get our act together,'" Davis said.
He also said the department is willing to help businesses that are "fearful of reprisals" from criminals operating out of their storefronts.