What downtown needs: More cops, fewer knuckleheads

During a stroll Thursday night from Little Italy to Harborplace, I bought jelly beans in The Best of Luck candy store, listened to a sidewalk trumpeter play the blues, noted several dead lights that left unappealing darkness along Pratt Street, and watched a Baltimore police officer train his flashlight into cars approaching the stop at Pratt and South, apparently looking for anyone not wearing a seat belt.

He was the first cop I saw, and I guess his duty was in the cause of public safety, but I'd much rather have seen the man on foot patrol, strolling the sidewalks and Inner Harbor promenade with the rest of us.

His presence certainly would have been appreciated 30 minutes later, when a squadron of eight skinny boys on bicycles decided to pop wheelies and fly along the brick walkway between the World Trade Center and the National Aquarium, oblivious (or maybe not) to pedestrians. One of the knuckleheads — to use Police Commissioner Fred Bealefeld's term of endearment — came right at me, his front tire a few feet from my face before he veered to his left.

May is Baltimore Bike Month, and I'm all for bikes, but not in a flying V, and not in my face. Last I checked, the city allows bicyclists along the waterfront, but only during morning hours — before 10 Monday through Saturday, before 11 on Sunday. The knucklehead squadron buzzed by around 9 p.m. when there were still plenty of people trying to enjoy the spring evening.

I know our police have more important things to do, but this was the Inner Harbor, the center of Baltimore public life. It needs to be respected and protected. Harborplace, the aquarium, the Power Plant, Pier 6, The Gallery, Pratt Street and the whole long stretch of hotels, offices and businesses to the convention center and Camden Yards — it took three decades to build all that, to transform an industrial waterfront and empty-at-night downtown into a destination for tourists and a point of pride for the most jaded city dwellers.

Harborplace opened 32 years ago, and over time the investment in that corner of waterfront has paid off. Downtown Baltimore, or what theU.S. Census Bureau identifies as Tract 401, showed the most population growth in the city between 2000 and 2010. Its new residents include young professionals, college students, retirees and people who commute to Washington. Half of the people who live in Tract 401 consider themselves minorities, too.

That's all grand, of course. But strong downtown growth means growing pains, too.

Tract 401 is also where the troubles ofSt. Patrick's Dayoccurred — flash mobs, street brawls, a stabbing, teenage knuckleheads pounding on passing cars and intimidating pedestrians, police trying to keep up with the action over two hours of a Saturday night. Initial reports downplayed the extent of violence in the disturbances. But now more facts are known, and Baltimore's fragile reputation shows stress cracks again. It doesn't take much for people to start howling that the end is near, nor for gleeful bigots to inject racial poison and laugh their told-you-so's about city life.

Let's keep things in perspective.

On a Friday night stroll along the waterfront in March friends marveled at how busy the bars and restaurants were, how the streets were jumping. Some were amazed at new buildings and businesses, especially on the east side of the harbor. "Those people in the suburbs," a friend said, "the ones who say no one wants to go to Baltimore — have they even been here lately to see all this?"

No doubt, there are people who never come downtown. Certainly there are some who won't bring their families at night again (except for maybe an Orioles game) until the city shows that it can keep a big, holiday crowd safe. That's a lot of pressure to put on City Hall and the BCPD. But that's where we are now, and Police Commissioner Bealefeld's last big project before retirement could be a safe Fourth of July 2012 at the Inner Harbor.

Arresting bad guys with guns — important. Getting the annual homicide count down, below 200 — huge. But we need to keep downtown and the Inner Harbor safe. So fix the street lights, and let's see more cops. More cops, fewer knuckleheads.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. His email is dan.rodricks@baltsun.com. Twitter: @DanRodricks.

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