Incoming mayor joins citizens' crime walk

A top issue for the folks living in Northeast Baltimore's Belair-Edison neighborhood: Build a place for the kids to hang out.

There is no youth center in the sprawling community, and getting one was foremost on the mind of Tony Dawson, the blunt-talking association president, when asked Wednesday night to recite his wish list to the incoming mayor, City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake.

The two were on a Citizens on Patrol walk - which Dawson has renamed Good Neighbor Walks - one of more than two dozen held throughout Baltimore as part of a community outreach initiative. Mayor Sheila Dixon walked near her home in Hunting Ridge; the police commissioner chose Old Homeland.

Rawlings-Blake returned to a community she knows well and has visited often. She called the walks a necessary part of her policing strategy to engage residents. She knows Belair-Edison needs a rec center, but she also knows that money is tight.

"If we wait in these economic times to build a rec center, Mr. Dawson will have moved out of the city by then," she said.

Dawson is working with new owners of the run-down Erdman Shopping Center to take over a vacant storefront and turn that into a place for children. Rawlings-Blake fully endorsed the idea. "The community needs a place, and the new owners of the center want shoppers," she said. "Seems if they work this out, he gets good customers."

These citizen walks with police and residents have become a staple of Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III's tenure, a crucial element of forging relationships and pointing out problems. Rawlings-Blake has participated in many as council president, but Wednesday she was there in a new role, as the city's incoming chief executive.

Nearly three dozen residents joined her, but there was not much interaction as they walked through the shopping center and turned up residential streets. The next mayor talked policy - she wants to continue Bealefeld's policing style and strategy, but with even more community help and more use of surveillance cameras.

An aide walked by her side and noted properties with problems that needed addressing, even ripping off an illegal sign nailed to a pole. She said as council president she once met with a group of rank-and-file officers, which she wants to do again to learn not only what they need but also their ideas for reducing crime.

Northeast District Deputy Maj. Darryl DeSousa talked about partnerships as well. The Belair community association obtained a federal grant that pays overtime to two officers to walk the main business corridor, an effort DeSousa said has helped keep crime down and the area safe for shoppers.

Rawlings-Blake said she needs innovative ideas that don't involve spending money. "We're not going to be able to hire our way out of this issue," she said. By "this issue," the soon-to-be mayor explained, she meant "our murder numbers, our violent crime numbers."

Baltimore is enjoying a 20-year low in homicides but finished 2009 with 238 killings, up from 234 the previous year, and the city remains one of the deadliest in the nation. The Northeast District, which includes Belair-Edison, tied with Northwest for the second-highest homicide count of the nine city districts, behind the volatile Eastern.

The numbers weren't lost on anyone Wednesday night. Dawson said he's ready to march the streets carrying "Stop the Murder" signs. DeSousa said his police need "to drive the murders down."

On Feb. 4, Rawlings-Blake takes over the city, and that includes the homicide count.