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Fells Point community concerns are valid; threatening to extort Baltimore to fix them is not | COMMENTARY

A Baltimore City Police officer walks past costumed people listening to a band performing outside the Waterfront Hotel on Thames Street in Fells Point last Halloween. October 31, 2020. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun).
A Baltimore City Police officer walks past costumed people listening to a band performing outside the Waterfront Hotel on Thames Street in Fells Point last Halloween. October 31, 2020. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun). (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun)

One can scarcely blame Fells Point residents and business owners for their concerns about crime, trash and drug sales in their Baltimore community. Last weekend, three people were shot in two separate incidents, one of which took place just 25 feet from patrolling city police officers — an especially brazen example of what the historic waterfront neighborhood has been contending with in recent months. It proved the last straw for more than 30 business and restaurant workers who recently wrote a letter to city government threatening to withhold unspecified city taxes if more isn’t done to curb a “culture of lawlessness” in the area.

They had us until the taxes part.

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First, some perspective: There’s been something of a COVID-19 pandemic going on, and the consequences for the hospitality industry have often been dire. One of the curious side effects in Fells Point, for example, has been to push young, sometimes drunken patrons into public spaces with now-legal carryout cups of booze, particularly on the weekends, with unfortunate consequences, including: more trash, more disorderly conduct, open drug use, vandalism and, yes, violence. The police response to this has probably been subpar, but then a lot is being heaped on their plate right now given the concentrated gun violence in other parts of the city. Some of these problems around Broadway Square may ease naturally as COVID restrictions that limit indoor gatherings are lifted. Others may require a more concerted effort from both the public and private sectors (and more about that in a moment).

But threatening city government like you were a bunch of Russian hackers ready to extort bitcoin out of the Colonial Pipeline is seldom, if ever, a good idea. And given the amount of public dollars already pumped into helping the restaurant and hotel industry survive this past year from the federal, state and local governments, it’s in especially poor taste. What’s next? Will Harbor East businesses refuse to pay their millions of dollars in property taxes until there’s a cop on every corner of their even-more-prosperous waterfront neighborhood? Will only the rich get adequate city services?

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What’s really needed is for all the stakeholders in Fells Point to work with the Baltimore Police Department and other appropriate city agencies to draft a plan to make their community safer, cleaner and more prosperous. Perhaps it requires closing Broadway Square earlier or paying more attention to how much alcohol is being served to already inebriated individuals. It may mean more involvement from the Waterfront Partnership, the nonprofit that helps oversee many of these public spaces. Residents might take greater responsibility for keeping their streets clean, too. So might businesses, who might also encourage their customers to act responsibly. Not everything should fall on police shoulders, though officers clearly have a role to play in making sure behavior does not get out of hand. This is not too much to ask, especially when that behavior in question is just feet away.

And that might be a lesson for other parts of Baltimore looking to prosper post-pandemic. We need more such partnerships, more teamwork, more personal involvement and more battle plans tailored to a particular neighborhood’s needs. Maybe it means improved trash collection here or graffiti remedies there. And perhaps squeegee kids and dirt bike riders need to be held to good behavior, too. Not every problem requires the presence of a police officer with a sidearm, however. Police ought to be focused primarily on reducing violent crime. But there are times when arrests, or at least the threat of arrests, is needed. We can’t shy away from that either. And public officials, Mayor Brandon Scott included, need to speak out more loudly and more frequently on the matter to send the message that unacceptable behavior is still regarded as, well, unacceptable.

The list of unacceptable behavior includes illegally withholding tax payments. This isn’t a landlord versus tenant dispute. It’s a matter of maintaining public order, and two wrongs, as the saying goes, don’t produce a right.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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