Feedback

City’s top prosecutor visits a community that’s hurting

A lecture, but not much listening, by Baltimore City State's Attorney Gregg Bernstein.

Earl Garrison memorial

A makeshift tribute at a boarded-up Westport rowhouse where Earl Garrison was killed on September 8.

Photo by: Linda Towe

At least they can agree on the dirt bikes.

When Westport resident Elizabeth Arnold called the ear-splitting noise of 40 or 50 dirt bikes that illegally drag up and down Annapolis Road “just horrible,” State’s Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein vigorously nodded his head.

“Dirt bikes are a huge issue. I spend a lot of time focusing on them,” he said, noting that his office had successfully convicted a dirt biker with a 165-day jail sentence.

It was a moment when the Westport Safety Committee appeared to find Bernstein’s words uplifting. Otherwise, Monday’s meeting between the city’s top prosecutor and 12 citizens trying to bring some semblance of order to the streets seemed an exercise not so much in futility as in disconnect.

Disconnect between the cycle of violence and self-destructive behavior in this isolated and impoverished South Baltimore community and Bernstein’s dry lecture on the bureaucratic organization of his office – and, more generally, City Hall’s depiction of Westport as an up-and-coming waterfront community.

“We’re hurting,” longtime activist Linda Towe said simply.

Elizabeth Arnold, Ruth Sherrill and Linda Towe listen to State's Attorney Gregg Bernstein at the safety committee meeting. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

Elizabeth Arnold, Ruth Sherrill and Linda Towe listen to Bernstein address the safety committee. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

Culture of Despair

Since September, in a community where Pat Turner’s extravagant plans for $1.4 billion of waterfront skyscrapers, luxury homes and office buildings have collapsed, there’s been two murders, three fatal drug overdoses and continuing neglect by the city, according to residents.

On this Monday evening, Westport was dark and deserted except for some shadowy figures loitering along Annapolis Road, a parallel world that seemed remote from City Hall’s upbeat claims of a rejuvenating neighborhood.

Towe, who organized the safety meeting, praised Bernstein for coming to her small storefront office to talk to residents representing the Westport Improvement Association and TOOUR (Teaching Our Own Understanding and Responsibility).

At the same time, she said Bernstein was the first person from the prosecutor’s office to visit the community groups since the 2010 Democratic primary when he defeated incumbent State’s Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy.

“We used to have a representative of the state’s attorney here,” Towe said, “but then it stopped and both the people [who came to the safety meetings] lost their jobs.”

Graffiti scrawled on a Westport building commemorating the recent overdose death of "Lil B," age 29. (Photo by Linda Towe)

Graffiti on a Westport building commemorates the recent overdose death of “Lil B,” age 29. (Photo by Linda Towe)

Nodding Off

Bernstein told the community he had accepted their invitation because he wanted to know what was happening in the neighborhood and have a dialogue.

But Bernstein’s presentation left little room for back-and-forth, and somehow the recent community bloodshed on everyone’s mind before and after the meeting was never discussed.

Westport remains rattled by the deaths of Earl Garrison, 38, killed September 8 around the corner on Kent Street, and “John John” Planters, 21, riddled with bullets in broad daylight just a block from this meeting room on October 25.

Bernstein spent much of his time talking about the progress his office has made as a result of his “community prosecution model.” That approach divides the city into three zones and has prosecutors handle all cases in a zone, rather than divide up cases into felonies, narcotics prosecutions and so forth.

Through this “holistic approach,” Bernstein said, slapping his thigh for emphasis, prosecutors have achieved a 70% conviction rate in the last four to five months and are getting more connected to the communities. “My goal ultimately is for people from these zones to come to these meetings.”

He explaining his other innovations, including a major investigations unit to track down on violent repeat offenders and a prostitution diversion program to encourage women to leave the world’s oldest profession.

It was a monologue that left most of the 12 citizens quiet and without that much to say when he finally called on them for questions.

Trash and furniture put in the alley behind Annapolis Road to block the police. (Photo by Linda Towe)

Trash and furniture put in the alley behind Annapolis Road to block the police. (Photo by Linda Towe)

Meth Labs

In addition to dirt bikes, the scourge of drugs was foremost on their minds.

Some of Westport’s many vacant houses – a legacy of the brief speculative boom in properties when Turner first announced his plans – are used as makeshift meth labs. “We report this [to the city] and it never goes away. Or it goes to another vacant house,” one resident told Bernstein.

The prosecutor suggested that residents contact the housing department, which has “some folks” who work as special state’s attorneys. Or if that approach fails, he said, give him the addresses, so he can forward them to the proper authorities.

Another resident described the problem of dealers sending out young kids to run their drugs. “We’re seeing it and it’s a dilemma,” the resident said, because the dealer and the children are often connected by family ties.

“Keep calling the police,” Bernstein advised. “The police department makes their deployment decisions based on complaints.”

He said he was considering a comprehensive approach to dealing with the drug problem by involving the health department, housing department and other agencies. He cited a combination of drug-screening programs to help addicts, the mayor’s Vacants-to-Value housing program to reduce the number of boarded-up properties, and community gardens and volunteer patrols as ways to collectively create “sustainable safe zones.”

“We’re getting ready to do this in one area, and I’m seriously thinking of Westport as another. Seriously thinking.”

On that note, Bernstein excused himself, saying he had another commitment, and was out the door with his bodyguard.

Most violent crimes are committed by a relatively small number of people, Bernstein told the safety committee, and he has devised new strategic methods to target them. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

Bernstein’s prosecution models and staff reorganization left community members wondering how they relate to real-life Westport. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

What About the Children?

Back in the chilly meeting room, Linda Towe was saying that crime seemed to be getting worse in Westport. Ruth Sherrill, president of the Westport Improvement Association, disagreed, but only somewhat.

Stabbings, beatings and drug dealing have been a constant for years, she said. What’s changed is that crime has penetrated into the heart of the community.

It flares up from Waterview Avenue to Manokin Street, but is especially concentrated around the Light Rail stop, which lies between a waterfront cleared in anticipation of Turner’s glitzy skyscrapers and rows of modest houses built for factory workers whose factories have long since disappeared.

“It’s the children that really worry us cause the streets are taking hold of them,” Sherrill continued.

“We’ve talked to the city, to our councilman, for years. We’ve asked for a rec center – there’s no rec center for all of Westport! – and for a community center for job-training classes, after-school programs and meetings. We never get anything but the runaround.”

Be sure to check our full comment policy before leaving a comment.

  • Anonymous

    I absolutely disagree that crime is worse in Westport. I have been assured by Westport residents that they are satisfied living there. In fact, Linda Towe with the Project TOOUR … does NOT focus on improvements of Westport. Westport is doing great and normal like any neighborhood.

    • baltimorebrew

      NOTE from Baltimore Brew: This comment, which we publish in full, comes from the gmail account of Veditz Center of Maryland, a nonprofit group seeking to establish a deaf center and museum in Westport. According to its website, Westport developer Pat Truner has “generously supported” the organization and its mission: http://www.veditz-center-of-maryland.org/appreciation/.

      We asked Linda Towe today to respond to the claim by “Anonymous” that Towe charged $10 a head for residents to attend Monday’s crime meeting. She said: “This is totally untrue. It’s a lie. We don’t collect money from anyone. All of our services are free.”

  • trueheart4life

    Did anyone ask him about his new $89K/month offices on Lexington Street?  Outrageous!!!

    • Barnadine_the_Pirate

      The courthouses are ancient and overcrowded. One of the few short-term solutions left before knocking them down and rebuilding them (something that’s been needed for 30 years now) is to move the state’s attorney’s offices outside of the courthouse to free up some space.

      The offices need to be near the courthouse. The courthouse is downtown. Offices downtown are expensive. What do you propose as an alternative?

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/YZR3JEY5SYQELFKIPYMCIFQBMA Michelle

    There were 6 cops investigating some broken apartment mailboxes this morning in a nice part of town. I hardly can believe that “The police department makes their deployment decisions based on complaints.”

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/742JMFQTHPEGJE6R3GENZFLWFI Big Stuff

    This article is pure sensationalist crap. Shame on this news outlet for labeling a neighborhood, how dare someone who doesn’t live there tell people what an area is/isn’t like.

    I have lived in the Patterson Park neighborhood for almost 10 years and I remember an article very similar to this in the Sun years back calling my neighborhood “the most dangerous neighborhood in Baltimore”. I never felt in danger, but this sensationalist drivel sells and even though there was spotty support for their argument they printed it anyway.

    10 years later Patterson Park is now being hailed by the same paper as a shinning example of re-gentrification and growth. People are flooding into the neighborhood to “discover” life above the park now that it’s “safer” and I honestly don’t feel like it’s changed much at all, other than the houses getting some much needed rehab work.

    Don’t fret Westport, whether my neighborhood was called hell or heaven by some idiot journalist who lived in the county it still felt like one thing to me… home.

    • baltimorebrew

      For the record, the author of this story lives in Baltimore City. Always has.

    • lutherh

      We apreciate your support and understand how you felt 10 years agol. But Patterson Park had the political backing that hopefully represented your developers and the neighborhood groups.  That is not a luxury that we have.  I live in Westport and things are bad.  I can’t even go to and from the Ligt Rail without fearing that something is going to happen.  A lot of people are afraid to get involved because they do not trust the Police,  The developer who the City supports is having a hard time and the City is more interested in helping him and the investors out than helping people who have been here for a long time.  Most of the time that you hear about Westport from other media sources it is a feel good article while we are dealing with real problems.  Gentrification can be a good thing as you have experienced, but in the mean time we want our neighborhood to work for us.  Investors and deveoper and the City don’t want everyone else to know that things are one sided and will not help us move forward.  The real Westport needs to have access to media who will tell the whole story, not just the part that people with money want the masses to know about. 

  • ushanellore

    Shouldn’t a police blotter and crime statistics give us a ballpark idea about the incidence of crime in Westport?  Why the defensiveness and the pugnacious comments from various Baltimore residents?  The dangerousness of a neighborhood should not be a subjective matter of speculation in this day and age.  It should be a verifiable matter and perhaps even a science of exactitude.   

    • lutherh

      What you say about the police blotter is true as far as it goes, but when things happen and reports are not taken, or there are other calls that are more important everything does not get into the statistics.  I have attended Police Council meetings where I have questioned about crimes that I know took place that wer not in the stats.  We are not being defensive.  We are looking at the whole picture.  If you are not there, you do not see the younger children running drugs for the older guys.  If you are not there, you do not see us cleaning up the storm drains filled with trash, black plastic bags, soup bowls and other debris.  If you are not there you do not see the children who should be in school and are hanging out in the vacant buildings instead.   You do not hear or see the fear that residents have when they need to make a choice between making that call to the Police or just hoping that what ever happens does not resuls in someone being hurt or killed. We are trying to work with City agencies and our politicians to prevent these problems.  We cannot put blinders on and expect for everything to be ok.  Knowing what the problems are and looking for ways to eleminate or prevent them from happening is what all of us should be about.   Although I hear from out politicians that Westport is one of the worse neighborhoods in the City, I do object.  Until we get a handle on it and people stop  working against each other Westport will get worse.  It is not up to the Police, court system, politicians or anyone else to make Westport a safer and better place to live, work and visit. It is up to the residents and people who have invested their money, their time and interest to make the difference.  

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/XLSQGC76XDR2TMCIU2LDZ4NM5A James

    “I absolutely disagree that crime is worse in Westport. I have been assured by Westport residents that they are satisfied living there. In fact, Linda Towe with the Project TOOUR recruited residents to the special crime meeting so she could collect money from special crime meeting for 10 dollars per head on each resident who attends. Also, she does NOT focus on improvements of Westport. Westport is doing great and normal like any neighborhood”, Anonymous….ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!!!!! Please refrain from spreading such misleading information. I have been working with Linda Towe for quite a few years now. THERE ARE VERY FEW PEOPLE IN THIS NEIGHBORHOOD>>>VERY FEW people besides Linda, who is even trying to do anything positive for this community. I LIVE HERE!! Have you heard about the recent murders, overdoses? Have you seen the blight, crime? Do you know what the unemployment rate is for this community? I actually take offense to you saying that MY neighborhood is doing great…RIDICULOUS!!!

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/XLSQGC76XDR2TMCIU2LDZ4NM5A James

    I LIVE HERE!!! Unfortunately, as the author states, his portrayal is, for the large part, ACCURATE

  • baltimorebrew

     We asked Linda Towe today to respond to a claim by “Anonymous’” that Towe
    charged $10 a head for residents to attend Monday’s crime meeting. She
    said: “This is totally untrue. It’s a lie. We don’t collect money from
    anyone. All of our services are free.”

  • lutherh

    What you say about the police blotter is true as far as it goes, but when things happen and reports are not taken, or there are other calls that are more important everything does not get into the statistics.  I have attended Police Council meetings where I have questioned about crimes that I know took place that wer not in the stats.  We are not being defensive.  We are looking at the whole picture.  If you are not there, you do not see the younger children running drugs for the older guys.  If you are not there, you do not see us cleaning up the storm drains filled with trash, black plastic bags, soup bowls and other debris.  If you are not there you do not see the children who should be in school and are hanging out in the vacant buildings instead.   You do not hear or see the fear that residents have when they need to make a choice between making that call to the Police or just hoping that what ever happens does not resuls in someone being hurt or killed. We are trying to work with City agencies and our politicians to prevent these problems.  We cannot put blinders on and expect for everything to be ok.  Knowing what the problems are and looking for ways to eleminate or prevent them from happening is what all of us should be about.   Although I hear from out politicians that Westport is one of the worse neighborhoods in the City, I do object.  Until we get a handle on it and people stop  working against each other Westport will get worse.  It is not up to the Police, court system, politicians or anyone else to make Westport a safer and better place to live, work and visit. It is up to the residents and people who have invested their money, their time and interest to make the difference.  

  • cwals99

    We want to shout loudly and strongly to the States Attorney’s office and to Attorney General Gansler that the state and city would have plenty of money to send to the communities so they could build the organizations and business structures needed to make a community health if BERNSTEIN AND GANSLER DID THEIR JOBS!!!!!!!

    The community is victim to the Master Plan of starving a community slated to become affluent and as such the city stopped maintenance and allowed blight so they could come in and take it over for water-front development.  I just commented today on the closing of Northwestern High which is victim to the same development plans.

    What is always disturbing in these conversations about crime and violence in these poor neighborhoods is that never does anyone take responsibility for the level of poverty the people feel or the poverty of these communities.  It is all public policy that creates these environments.  In talking to the UMMS development person who will act as anchor in developing communities to the West of their downtown campus, I asked that they use the Harlem Enterprise Zone model that has been distorted by the BDC towards affluent development.  We need to see existing communities being lifted and all boats floating in future development.  I hear the Cherry Hill developer may have dropped out so now is a good time for Harlem Enterprise Zone to step up.

More of the Daily Drip »

Below the Fold

  • March 24, 2014

    • Last Thursday, I sent an email to the Mayor’s Office of Communications asking for some basic responsiveness: Please return our emailed queries and phone calls about stories. Please send us the same routine emails you send to other members of the media. Lately, more so than usual, they haven’t been. It’s a shame because, even [...]

Twitter

Facebook