Visitors to Baltimore's downtown on summer weekends will see up to 50 additional police officers, a show of force aimed at preventing a repeat of St. Patrick's Day, when hundreds of youths battled and a tourist was beaten — scenes the mayor described as "a black eye for the city."
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake toured the streets around the Inner Harbor and downtown for two hours Friday, the first night of increased police presence. During the late-night walk, she made her first public comments since reports that the disturbances on March 17 were far more extensive and more violent than police had initially described.
While she praised officers for pushing unruly crowds away from the city center without resorting to mass arrests that night, the city's chief executive also said authorities were caught off-guard by the sudden influx of people on an unusually warm, festive holiday that fell on a Saturday and taxed police in the city's premier entertainment spots, from Canton to Federal Hill.
"Hindsight is 20-20," Rawlings-Blake said. "But the benefit of hindsight is what you see now, which is a different deployment strategy that would be better able to respond to unforeseen spikes in population."
She called the violence "horrible," including the videotaped beating of the tourist who was knocked to the ground, robbed and stripped naked outside the courthouse on Calvert Street in the early hours of March 18. Several people attacked the man as others watched and recorded the action with their smartphones instead of intervening or calling 911. Police have made four arrests in the case.
Rawlings-Blake said that incident showed "the worst of us. … It's not something that makes you proud."
The mayor's tour was billed as a routine survey of the Police Department's summer deployment to deal with the typical increased volume of visitors to the harbor and other downtown attractions as the tourist season gets under way. But this year's response stands out: It deploys the most manpower since 2010, when violence connected to the club and bar scene worsened, and entails better coordination of resources and increased surveillance.
The St. Patrick's Day disturbances two months ago made headlines only recently, after The Baltimore Sun obtained police dispatch tapes. Those recordings revealed the full scope of the rowdy night that ended with at least two stabbings and more than a dozen fights as huge crowds converged. Eventually, police from across the city were called in to help.
A state delegate who represents Baltimore and Harford counties also made news last when he put out a statement referring to "black youth mobs" and urging that state troopers patrol city streets. The delegate, Republican Pat McDonough, said the Inner Harbor should be declared a "no-travel zone."
Rawlings-Blake's office dismissed the statements as a "racially charged publicly stunt," but McDonough's comments further inflamed the already sensitive issue of downtown crime. City officials are promoting 30-year lows in homicides and other crime categories, while simultaneously combating an image that Baltimore is riddled with violence that goes unreported to the public.
On Friday night, Rawlings-Blake was joined by Deputy Commissioner Anthony Barksdale and Col. Dean Palmere, the chief of patrol, along with her new chief of staff. Palmere briefed the mayor on the new downtown deployment plan, which includes dividing the Central District into tiny zones to better manage assignments.
Charts displayed near a large police van listed quick contact numbers for supervisors, and a flat-screen television mounted on the side offered a live camera feed from the police helicopter flying above.
Most visible to residents will be the increased police presence. In addition to the extra 50 officers assigned to foot posts, sheriff's deputies will be stationed around the Circuit Court buildings on North Calvert Street.
And city school police will stand guard outside the Gallery at Harborplace. The mayor said the unusual assignment — paid for by city police, not the school system — enables the police to expand their presence and take some pressure off the city force.
"We have issues with school-aged kids," Rawlings-Blake explained. "Who better to stand out here then the people who see them every day?"
Up to 20 of the officers stationed downtown will be from the police academy class that graduated Friday. Their first day with a badge and gun came at Saturday's Preakness.
Authorities are also beefing up the technological capabilities of surveillance cameras. More than 100 cameras are trained on downtown streets, and 450 others are positioned elsewhere in Baltimore.
The city is testing a high-definition camera outside the command center on Howard Street. It provides a crisp image and eliminates washout from flashing lights, and it may one day replace the other cameras. Police also are fine-tuning a license-plate reader that will be on some cameras and that use a laser beam to scan plates and relay information to a command center.
And for the first time, General Growth Properties, which runs The Gallery and the Harborplace pavilions, has linked its internal video cameras to the Police Department, so police can now watch inside and outside the shopping center.