In the wake of a horrific crime in West Baltimore – the kidnapping and assault of a 71-year-old woman in Leakin Park – residents packed a community meeting last night.
And after listening to police and elected officials urge them to call 311 to report their safety concerns, several people lashed out in frustration.
“We came here hoping we could hear what you could do,” said Gale Fletcher, who lives near the park in the Hunting Ridge neighborhood. “The only thing I’m hearing is what we can do for you.”
“You have given us nothing,” continued Fletcher, drawing applause from a crowd of more than 75 at the Cahill Recreation Center, located not far from where the kidnapping occurred on November 7.
The criticism had some officials at the meeting on the defensive.
“We’re asking for partnership with you all,” said the district’s councilman, Kristerfer Burnett.
“If the answers were as easy as we would like them to be, they would have already happened,” Burnett said. “We care as much as you do.”
According to Baltimore Police, the attack occurred a little after 6 p.m. when the woman was taking her daily walk on a trail.
A man dragged her off to a remote place where he’d been camping and tied her to a chair, proceeding to kiss her, touch her, then choke and strike her.
The assailant was later identified as Charles Avon Taylor, 46, of Baltimore.
Arrested last Tuesday, Taylor faces charges including kidnapping, first-degree assault, reckless endangerment and fourth-degree sex offense.
“Bound to happen”
At the meeting organized by the Department of Recreation and Parks, community members said they appreciated the police department’s quick response and arrest of the suspected assailant.
But they had blistering remarks about what they called chronic neglect of the park compared to other parks in more affluent areas of the city.
Several said the city bears responsibility for unsafe conditions by failing to police the 1,200-acre park and keep it clean and decently maintained.
“My concern is that this was bound to happen,” said Erica Lewis, a board member of Friends of Gwynns Falls/Leakin Park.
“We want to be able to access a park in our neighborhood, and it shouldn’t take gentrification to make that happen,” she continued.
Discussion hinged on public safety, the amount of funding for parks, and how people can best communicate with city agencies about how to improve park maintenance.
Community members said the city should close park gates at regular times, increase police surveillance of park trails and add to the number of park rangers. Others mentioned improving the response times on 311 tickets.
Garwyn Oaks resident Ann Everton pressed officials to clear an encampment in the park where police say the alleged assailant was living.
Everton said she had visited the assailant’s camp since the assault and had reported it multiple times to 311. As of Tuesday, she said, it had not been cleaned up.
Councilman James Torrence pushed back, pointing to the need to interact with homeless people sleeping outside ethically. “It’s enforcement. But it’s enforcement with care,” Torrence said.
“You have to change your mind and perception of what you are doing to keep us safe” – Amanda Asmus, Windsor Hills Neighbors.
City and police officials were chided by Amanda Asmus, a member of Windsor Hills Neighbors, who likened the city officials arrayed before the audience to performers “at a punk rock concert.”
“You have so much to learn from where you’re sitting,” Asmus said. “You have to change your mind and perception of what you are doing to keep us safe.”
Burnett said that the city would begin routine aerial flyovers of the area, and urged residents to continue calling 311 and using the 311 app to report anything unusual.
BCRP representatives said five new rangers will start patrolling city parks soon.
City officials asked community members to reach out to Tony Savage, a parks liaison, with any concerns. (Savage can be reached at 443-401-3902 or firstname.lastname@example.org).
“I used to walk with the victim”
Also present at the meeting was State Delegate Malcolm P. Ruff.
Ruff said he and other 41st District lawmakers “are committed to bringing back dollars from Annapolis this year for recreation and parks and especially for the park ranger program.”
“We are very concerned with this situation, but we want to add to the resources needed to address this issue,” Ruff said.
“I know the victim. She doesn’t know if she will ever walk in the park again” – Bridget McCusker, Friends of Gwynns Falls/Leakin Park.
Bridget McCusker, who has lived next to the park for nearly a decade, told Ruff the resources must go towards safety measures that should have been implemented long ago.
“We feel like if the park had been cared for in the way it should be cared for – if we had park rangers and a police patrol, and if we had regular employees of recreation and parks assigned to the parks – this wouldn’t have happened,” said McCusker, a vice president of Friends of Gwynns Falls/Leakin Park.
“I know the victim, and I used to walk with the victim. It’s just awful what happened to her. She is seriously injured,” McCusker said.
“She told me that she doesn’t know if she will ever walk in the park again.”