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Baltimore doesn't need businesses that are magnets for crime

From the outside, the Mini Market in the 1900 block of Greenmount Avenue appeared to be just another mom-and-pop store struggling to stay afloat and serve the residents of its distressed inner-city neighborhood. But police say that wasn’t all that was going on.

In the last eight months officers had arrested the convenience store’s operators twice on drug charges after discovering marijuana, scales and cash on the premises. And in July, police were called to the scene after gunfire was reported coming from the building.

Last week, the Baltimore City Police Department finally shut down what it alleges was a thriving underground business that had long served as a magnet for crime in the neighborhood.

To say that Baltimore doesn’t need the kind of enterprises that attract such unwelcome activity, that they’re in fact anathema to efforts to build healthier, more livable communities and a sense of civic responsibility, is an understatement. Yet city officials have rarely sought to close establishments that represent a menace to their neighbors.

Baltimore has been struggling with the problem since at least 2008, when the city tried (with only partial success) to shut down a West Baltimore liquor store that had been targeted with complaints about drug dealing and a fatal shooting on the premises. In that case the city took advantage of a law that allows authorities to “padlock” a business for up to a year if police deem it to be complicit in crime. The following year police used the same statute (again with mixed results) to close a nightclub in Mount Vernon linked to a string of shootings, robberies and assaults in the area. And last year Baltimore city Police Commissioner Kevin Davis and then-Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake closed a BP gas station in the Franklintown area where they said a pervasive pattern of illegal activity had been condoned by management.

In all three cases shuttering such public nuisances turned out to be a lengthy, time-consuming process that left many residents feeling frustrated and powerless to change their communities for the better. Such feelings eventually can sap the life out of a neighborhood and lead residents to believe that no matter how hard they try things will never change. The law has always been cumbersome and difficult to enforce, and each time a situation like the one on Greenmount Avenue comes to light it serves as a reminder of how much still needs to be done.

It shouldn’t take months, or in some cases years, before city authorities can legally take action against businesses that are a constant source of complaints because they attract problems ranging from vagrancy and loitering to drug-dealing and gun violence. The negative effects of such illicit activities far outweigh any possible benefit the presence of a business may bring to the surrounding communities, which as often as not are among the city’s poorest, most distressed neighborhoods. Allowing criminals to prey on their residents under cover of operating legitimate businesses can only undermine already tenuous neighborhood institutions and hasten their decline. A wide body of research, much of it conducted at Johns Hopkins University, has shown that such businesses even have an outsized impact on public health because their presence in a community is closely correlated with a range of disorders from hypertension, diabetes and heart disease to alcohol and drug abuse.

Baltimore clearly needs to regulate such nuisances and to quickly shut them down when their menace to public safety and health becomes obvious. Across the city there are likely dozens of businesses that skitter along the edge of the law and in the process endanger their customers, their neighbors and their communities while thumbing their noses at police. Baltimore’s public nuisance law provides authorities with the means to do something about it. Police should not hesitate to use it when businesses make neighborhoods unsafe.

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