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101 Feature

Harm City?

Not necessarily, if you keep basic street sense in mind

Photo: Frank Hamilton, License: N/A, Created: 2009:07:09 14:48:50

Frank Hamilton


101 Stories
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  • A Day in Mount Vernon Mount Vernon typifies so many of the things we love about this city. | 8/16/2010
  • A Day in Station North Station North is a recent invention, but it’s been building up as a hot bed of culture and nightlife for years. | 8/16/2010
  • A Day Downtown Many locals love to complain about how touristy the Inner Harbor is, but there is fun to be had nonetheless. | 8/16/2010
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  • Mixer Meet fellow Baltimore-area college students and recent grads | 8/16/2010

Baltimore's reputation as a dangerous place precedes it. The city’s murder rate, although declining the past few years, remains one of the highest in the country (238 homicides in 2009, or 37 per 100,000 residents, versus 6 per 100,000 residents in New York City the same year). And while some incoming freshmen may have already encountered John Waters’ kitschy vision of Charm City by the time they show up for orientation, it’s more likely that they’ve glimpsed the streets of their new home via HBO’s murderous criminal epic . It’s enough to make timid n00bs wanna stick close to the dorm.

Baltimore’s reputation The WireBut Baltimore is also a city of friendly neighborhoods and vibrant public spaces and rich cultural treasures and endless late-night fun. Who wants to spend four years in the library missing out on all that?

The Wire depicts Baltimore in the context of its bustling trade in street drugs, so it makes sense that the city comes off like the Wild West through that lens. “If you’re not buying or selling drugs, [Baltimore]’s as safe as any big city,” says Samuel Tress, director of public safety and chief of campus police for the University of Baltimore in the Mount Vernon neighborhood. Which isn’t to say that innocent bystanders don’t fall victim to violence, particularly in disadvantaged neighborhoods. It is a big city, after all.

The crimes Tress’ officers are usually called out to deal with are property crimes, a fact that holds true at two of the city’s other major urban campuses, Johns Hopkins University’s Homewood campus in Charles Village and Morgan State University in Northeast Baltimore. All colleges and universities that receive federal funding are required by the 1990 Clery Act (aka the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act) to keep and make available their crime statistics. (A quick search for “Clery” on your school’s web site should bring up a link to a PDF of its most recent annual report.) Perusing recent Clery reports for city campuses reveals that local campus-security forces most often respond to robberies, burglaries, and motor vehicle thefts. (For reporting purposes, burglaries involve breaking into a structure while robberies involve theft from a person. Oh, and if no one has warned you about leaving any valuables visible in your parked car, well, don’t do that.)

None of which is to say Baltimore is some kind of risk-free theme park. It’s up to Tress and his counterparts at Hopkins, Morgan, and other schools, plus the Baltimore Police Department, to do what they can to protect students. This includes regular patrols, surveillance cameras, emergency phones, and asking the members of the university community to keep an eye out for each other. “We have a little catchphrase—if it doesn’t look right, it probably isn’t,” Tress says. “So report it, and let us investigate.”

But one of the more crucial things campus security operations do is try to educate students on how to protect themselves. Like all area schools, Hopkins delivers a safety briefing at orientation, but it also offers a regular walking tour of the surrounding neighborhood to point out ways to minimize risk, right down to which sidewalk you use.

“We always tell them if you’re walking down the street, especially on a one-way street, to walk on the driver’s side,” says Edmund Skordzki, executive director of campus safety and security at Johns Hopkins University. “Sometimes you’ll have criminals who’ll jump out of cars [and rob you], but it’s usually on the passenger side. If you’re on the opposite side of the street, it’s harder to do that.”

“The greatest tool in being safe is being aware of your surroundings,” concurs Adrian Wiggins, chief of police and director of police and public safety for Morgan State. “So we tell people no walking through the neighborhoods with their iPods on or texting.

“It comes down to choices,” Wiggins adds. “[Students] making good choices about where they go and what they do.”

As tricky as protecting thousands of students may be for campus security, the trickiest job of all may be making students aware of and prepared for the risks without scaring the bejesus out of them.

“They should enjoy Baltimore City,” Skordzki says of the students under his watch. “We stress to the students that the vast majority of students do not experience crime at Hopkins or in [the surrounding city]. With reasonable precaution, they can have an enjoyable four or five years here. But by educating them about the risks of their environment, I believe we reduce those risks.”

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