On Saturday night, Denise Kostka and her husband, disturbed by loud voices, peered out from their eighth-floor room in the Renaissance Baltimore Harborplace Hotel and saw at least 100 teens massing on the street below.
"I never saw anything like that, ever," said Kostka, visiting from Springfield, N.J., to take in the sights and see her niece who lives in Federal Hill. Then they saw police surround a car. "I thought, 'Oh my God, it's "COPS" live,'" Kostka said, referring to the popular reality television show.
Baltimore police have for years combated youths descending on downtown, causing fights and other trouble, and have employed the same strategy: push them out without resorting to mass arrests, just as they did Saturday night. At the same time, police have battled a perception of Baltimore being ravaged by crime — even as crime rates have declined.
The twin problems have been at odds on recent weekends. No more so than on St. Patrick's Day, when police confronted a downtown mob larger and more violent than previously experienced. Public reports by police in March about that volatile night did not fully relate the scope of what's described on dispatch tapes obtained by The Baltimore Sun, when 500 youths converged, resulting in more than a dozen fights, up to three stabbings and one man left unconscious.
Authorities have to strike a careful balance of how much to divulge to the public to ensure people are safe without unnecessarily frightening them, said Lt. Col. Michael J. Andrew, who retired last year after 38 years on the city force.
"If the average person sees one police car, he's concerned. ... If they see a group of kids, they panic," Andrew said. "But police have to talk intelligently and honestly. They don't have to tell the public they had it under control, because they obviously didn't on St. Patrick's Day."
"I'm not saying you have to push the panic button and say Baltimore is out of control," he added. "If you overreact, you scare people to death, and then what have you accomplished?"
Kostka said she worried when she saw no media reports on what she had seen on Saturday. "It was awfully scary," she said.
Police said there were no crimes to report outside Renaissance Baltimore Harborplace Hotel that night. Police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said police were trying to disperse the teen crowds and encourage them to leave downtown.
Another police spokesman gave a similar account of what happened on the night of March 17.
But as The Baltimore Sun reported, another description emerged from police dispatch tapes. Obtained through a Maryland Public Information Act request, the tapes show that on St. Patrick's Day as night fell, police struggled for hours to round up the youths in downtown, the Inner Harbor and Mount Vernon.
Police called in reinforcements from throughout the city to contain the mob and move people out of the harbor area, all while dealing with more than a dozen clashes between youths from the east and west sides. An officer had to use a Taser to subdue one youth, and 10 arrests were made.
For more than two hours, waves of teens roamed through downtown as officers blocked off streets. Police played down the events to reporters even as they unfolded. And when asked questions in the following days, police discussed one stabbing and the Tasing and noted a large number of people.
The police commander on the scene that night declined to be interviewed, and on Monday Guglielmi said the police commissioner would not be available for an interview.
Guglielmi and the Central District commander, Maj. Dennis Smith, have defended the way police handled the dissemination of information.
"The incidents were managed appropriately by the Central District and information was made publicly available," Guglielmi said.
Andrew recalls years past when teens used to descend on the Inner Harbor on Easter weekend. One year, a group ran through the pavilions, turning over tables and upsetting people eating. Merchants shut down early, sparking even more complaints.
The retired commander said that police used the same tactic then as they do now — push the youths out without making too many arrests. "We became chaperons," Andrew said, adding that only a few youths caused real problems.
"I think you should be honest with the public and tell them what's happening," Andrew said. "They know. They see what's happing down there. … If you don't do that, I think in the long run it hurts you more."
For many residents and tourists, just one incident can mar their perceptions of the city. People frequently complain about violence and shootings that go unreported, and what is considered routine for Baltimore police can be unnerving for others.
Kostka said that this past weekend was her first visit to Baltimore, and if she returns again, she will stay someplace other than downtown. She and her husband visit New York City often, "and I've never seen anything like that," she said. She described 75 to 100 youths walking up the street in Baltimore, blocking traffic, and few police. In Times Square, she said you see "tons of cops" even on a peaceful night.
"I would've thought that within two minutes you'd see a cop. One cop car, that's all we saw," she said. "I didn't really see cops in the Inner Harbor or anything. After the shops started closing, a whole different element started coming into the area. How do you expect to get tourists if people are going to say, 'No way?'"
Baltimore leaders are in a constant quandary. They seek opportunities to tout crime statistics that show homicides plummeting to lows not seen in three decades. At the same time, the city's drug and gun trade fuels violence that still puts Baltimore in the top tier of per-capita crime in the country.
The outgoing police commissioner, Frederick H. Bealefeld III, has long complained of a chasm between reality and perception, and that one high-profile shooting, one riot, one attack at a tourist attraction, can upend years of actual crime reduction.
"I think it's going to take a long time for this city to convince itself that the schools are improving, that public safety is improving," Bealefeld said during an interview a day after he announced his departure effective Aug. 1.
"I think it's going to take years of success," the commissioner said, noting the city's negative image, driven by years of high crime numbers coupled with national television shows highlighting the drug trade here.
City officials are continually trying to put a positive spin on events that call into question the overall crime drop. After four people were killed in a spate of violence on Mother's Day, the police spokesman, Guglielmi, said, "We have to pause and look at the greater picture. We're down right now from last year's 33-year-low [in homicides]."
Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership, a group that promotes businesses and provides uniformed guides to help visitors, said that the full scope of St. Patrick's Day violence should be known by the public. But he also said it does hurt the city's image.
"It's a balancing act," Fowler said, noting that this past weekend there was a "wonderful" Charles Street festival and other events that many people might not have known about. Of the disturbances, he said, "For all the progress we've made downtown, it's always frustrating for these incidents to occur."
Fowler said that after St. Patrick's Day, his guides voiced concerns, as did some hotel officials. But he said not a single member of the partnership's board of directors, nor any residents, said anything about the disturbances. He also noted that apartment buildings in the area are at "near 100 percent capacity," a feat that could not have been accomplished if crime were rampant.
"I do get phone calls when there seems to be a pattern of something developing, like car break-ins," Fowler said. "I believe most people viewed what happened [on St. Patrick's Day] as an exception to the rule.
"Clearly, what happened was unacceptable," Fowler added. "But I firmly believe that the police did all they could to bring the situation under control. … Other great cities have experienced flash mobs. I don't think Baltimore is unique."
But Barry Richardson, 57, said in an interview, "I will definitely limit my visits from now on until I feel that the city has a handle on this problem." He said he had lived in Baltimore for 13 years before moving away in 1993, fleeing to Warrenton, N.C., because of high crime. He visits family and friends here about once a month.
He called city leaders "negligent for not letting the public know that they might risk life and limb if they come into Baltimore."
"I would assume that the Baltimore City folks would want to cover that problem up," he wrote in an email, referring to the problems on St. Patrick's Day. "It might hurt tourism and the convention trade. However, that is a serious problem that folks inside and outside of Baltimore should know about."
Richardson escaped Baltimore during some of its highest crime rates ever recorded — during the year that 353 people were killed on city streets, the all-time high. The 1990s would conclude with 10 consecutive years of 300 or more killings. In contrast, last year the city recorded fewer than 200 killings.
He still comes back to visit family, to watch the Orioles, to eat crabs in Canton. But, he added, "How can you have a good time when you have a bunch of hoodlums running around? Crime is down? I don't know, I don't feel that myself. What happens if I go to the Inner Harbor and get caught up in something like that?"Copyright © 2015, CT Now