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The grand reopening of police stations

As flattering as it may be to Connor Meek and The Sun that the 27-year-old's published account of the parade of difficulties he suffered reporting the robbery of his bike on the Gwynns Falls Trail to Baltimore City police could provoke such a swift and decisive response from officials, the whole kerfuffle has only raised more questions about the city's leadership.

For those who may have missed Monday's op-ed page, Mr. Meek wrote of how challenging it proved to be to report the June 15th incident to police — in large part because not one but two police stations, the Southwestern District where he initially tried to contact police and the Southern District where he was eventually transported, were closed to visitors from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. That a city police district would be closed at a time when it would presumably be most needed by ordinary citizens struck him as peculiar, as well it might. "Aside from a WWIII or a nuclear attack, there is no excuse for an urban police district to be closed 12 hours a day," he wrote.

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Though the whole story revolved around a relatively minor property crime — particularly in context of the murderous losses others in Baltimore have suffered — Mr. Meek's experience clearly struck a nerve. By Tuesday, people at every level of city government were climbing all over themselves to denounce that closed-door policy. Eventually, it was announced that all nine of the city's district stations would henceforth be made available to visitors 24 hours a day.

That's all well and good — at least it appears to be. But here's where it gets quite troubling: Why were those police stations kept inaccessible to visitors for half the day in the first place? How long has this been the policy? Who decided it and why? And what, if anything, is the cost to "maintain lobbies accessible to the public 24-hours a day," as the department's patrol chief, Col. Darryl DeSousa, has ordered? Nobody seems to know.

We will grant you that the history and minutia of how a large organization like the Baltimore City Police Department operates are not necessarily instantly revealed to everyone associated with it. But the visiting hours kept by districts (and there are only nine of them, for pity's sake) would seem to be pretty basic knowledge. Certainly one would expect those in command to be at least vaguely aware of that policy (as one might expect a school superintendent to know operating hours of his facilities), so why was this such a shock to City Hall, too?

Councilman Ed Reisinger may be right that closing a police station overnight is "stupid with a capital 'S,'" but as someone who represents portions of South and Southwest Baltimore, why is this the first the councilman has heard of it? Ditto for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, of course, who found the situation "unacceptable," a condemnation that's a bit blunted by her failure to be aware of what the city's crime victims have been dealing with every night for who knows how long — months, years or decades.

We strongly suspect that keeping stations open is not a big expense nor will it distract from duties that might be more pressing than stolen bikes. Plenty of other police departments in Maryland and elsewhere do so routinely. In Annapolis, police recently started allowing local residents to visit their station on Taylor Avenue 24 hours a day as a "safe zone" to complete Internet sales between strangers. Nor is it likely to open up police to attack — as if a "closed" sign was some ultimate protection against evil-doers at all hours of the day or night.

More likely, this is just another example of an entrenched bureaucracy where customer service has fallen by the wayside (along with a certain degree of professionalism, it appears). Even so, witnessing city government embarrassed into action by one man armed with an essay is not especially comforting. Does anyone know what's going on in this city's police department, good, bad or indifferent, or are we watching a perpetual public relations crisis response to the latest accusation? And here's the kicker that will twist your brain like the paradoxical time travel in the latest Terminator movie: Perhaps there was a valid reason to close district stations at night, and now, in the haste to paper it all over, we'll never even know what that was all about.

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